The Year of the Dog - A Chinese activist's story
Hu Jia spent 168 days under house arrest in 2006. This year promises to be little different
FEBRUARY 7, 2006
Today Hu Jia is free. No one stops him as he walks into a restaurant in downtown Beijing.
The small, bespectacled man in his 30s who sits down at the table is one of China's most prominent dissidents, and in the last couple of weeks Hu has been so closely monitored by the state security apparatus that it has been difficult to arrange a meeting with him.
Now the restaurant, in a modern shopping mall, is full of lively discussions and the ring-tones of mobile phones, as well-dressed Beijingers enjoy their business lunches.
Many of them are still in holiday mood. The Chinese New Year has just passed, and The Year of the Dog has begun.
Hu does not eat anything. He is on a hunger strike.
In recent months the Chinese government has tightened its censorship of the media and the Internet. Civil groups and NGOs have been brought under closer control; critical scholars have been silenced, and lawyers harassed.
As a protest, a civil rights defence movement has started a rotating strike with each one of the activists taking turns in fasting for 24 hours.
There may only be few dozen people involved in the hunger strike, but they have used the Internet and mobile phones to form a network. For the first time in years there is an organised protest going on, and it is spreading around China.
The State Security apparatus is getting nervous. The Communist Party has been able to suppress large demonstrations against its monopoly of power ever since 1989, when it crushed the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square.
The activists are naturally already under surveillance. It seems like someone also knew in advance about Hu's lunch meeting today. At one of the tables nearby, two lugubrious men sit smoking in silence, without ordering anything.
“They listen to my phone, they read my emails. They know everything. There is no avoiding it”, Hu says.
Hu Jia has been involved in many things in his 32 years. In the mid-1990s, as an economics student, he became interested in environmental protection issues. The burgeoning economic growth in China was destroying the natural surroundings. Hu joined the environmental organisation Friends of Nature, and made several trips to Inner Mongolia to plant trees.
At the turn of the millennium, Hu got into AIDS work. He saw how the disease was killing people, and how the administration merely tried to brush the subject under the carpet.
Gradually he has moved towards campaigning on behalf of more and more politically sensitive issues. Today is an important day for him. He is going to quit his Loving Source AIDS support group, an NGO he has been heading.
“I will become a full time democracy activist.”
In China, a statement like this is tantamount to voluntarily declaring himself an enemy of the world's largest authoritarian machine. Why does Hu want to do it? He believes China is in need of change.
“In the past 20 years and more China's economy has developed immensely. But the political system remains the same: it’s still just the one party in power. That is why there is conflict in the society”, Hu says from behind his teacup.
Hu may have some personal motives as well. In the radical communist campaign of the 1950s his father was branded a Rightist, and the family has suffered.
“I believe I have been born to fight for justice. I can’t stand injustice. Even at school I was always the one who defended girls who were teased or bullied.”
The restaurant crowd is thinning out. Hu stands up.
“I will go first”, he says. “Wait until I get outside.”
The silent men in the corner look at each other and stub out their cigarettes.
An SMS message comes from Hu Jia. “I’m under house arrest again.”
It means that burly plain-clothes officers are standing watch outside Hu’s home day and night. Their job is to see to it that Hu does not leave the house.
The situation is a familiar one. In 2005, Hu was kept under house arrest for four months or so. The remainder of the year he was subject to regular surveillance scrutiny. The Year of the Dog appears to be starting in equally grim fashion.
“I’m not optimistic. At times it feels as though China is committing suicide.”
The phone rings in the morning. The caller is Hu Jia's wife Zeng Jinyan.
“Hu Jia is missing. No one knows where he is. His mobile phone is switched off.”
The previous morning Zeng had left for work, leaving Hu in their apartment home. When she returned, the place was empty.
There were no signs of a physical struggle, but the men guarding the building have vanished.
Foreign journalists working in China have seen to it that Hu Jia’s disappearance has been reported around the world.
‘Civil rights activist goes missing in China’ went the headlines in the US, Brazil, Japan, Finland, and many other countries - but not in China. The Chinese media are under the control of the Party.
International organisations have also intervened. At least two UN agencies and Amnesty International have protested and are requesting information about Hu.
The activists’ hunger strike continues, but the police are picking up the members of the group one by one.
Hu Jia’s friends believe that his disappearance is linked to the meeting of the National People’s Congress, which got under way in Beijing in early March.
It is China’s equivalent of Parliament. When the elected representatives convene, the powers-that-be want to prevent critical voices from expressing their protests. Something may have been done to Hu to this end.
It is crowded on the Chang'an Avenue, the Avenue of Eternal Peace.
Skyscrapers rear up on both sides of the street, one of Beijing’s main arteries. In front of one gleaming hotel stands a group of foreign tourists gaping at Beijing’s prosperous modern centre.
Inside the hotel itself, they are talking about a different Chinese reality. Some of Hu Jia’s supporters have invited foreign journalists to a press briefing. The location has been passed on by SMS message at the last minute, in order that State Security has no time to react.
On a sofa in a room in the hotel sits Hu Jia’s wife Zeng Jinyan, a slim and small woman of 22.
“I’m scared that Hu Jia is being kept in a dark cellar and beaten up”, she says.
Hu has gone missing on several previous occasions. Usually word has come down from officials that he has been taken into custody.
This time nobody is saying anything.
Zeng says that she and Hu’s family have been several times to the police station to file a report of a missing person. The police have refused to accept the report.
“I’d feel less concerned if the authorities could at least tell us whether they are holding Hu Jia or not.”
Zeng is fretting about her husband’s health. Hu carries Hepatitis B, a common virus in China, and needs daily medication.
His medicines are at home.
Zeng is herself an activist for AIDS causes and has been in difficulties for it, but in taking Hu as a husband she knew she was getting a man who would be a constant source of worry.
The couple married the previous summer. There has also been talk of their having children. But now Hu has been gone for five weeks.
The only trace of him in that time was one small and rather strange signal.
One day, some anonymous person came to the office of the apartment block with Hu’s credit card.
“I don’t understand what that means”, says Zeng.
Aside from a score or so foreign correspondents stationed in the city, a few of Hu’s Chinese friends have gathered in the hotel room. One or two of them are journalists. They report that they are not allowed to write anything in their papers about Hu’s case.
The Chinese members of the gathering are extremely careful not to get their faces in any of the photographs that are taken.
Zeng has not heard from her husband for six weeks, but today, finally, her phone rings at work.
“I’ve been freed”, Hu Jia says.
Zeng starts to cry.
When she has composed herself, Zeng begins calling around to friends and to foreign journalists.
The sketchy facts of Hu’s disappearance come out.
Hu Jia was abducted by plain-clothed men who kept him as their prisoner for 41 days at an unknown address.
That morning, Hu had been taken with a hood over his head to a place on the outskirts of Beijing.
He was pushed out of the car in the parking lot of a shopping mall. Hu had recognised the place, and had set off for home on foot. The hour-long walk had almost been too much for him.
By the time he got home he was so weak and exhausted he could barely speak.
Continued. Please click on the link below.
More on this subject:
The Year of the Dog (Part Two)
The Year of the Dog (Part Three)
The Year of the Dog (Part Four)
SAMI SILLANPÄÄ / Helsingin Sanomat