The Year of the Dog (Part Two)
The Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen arrives on an official visit to China. He meets the Chinese leadership and representatives of Finnish business interests in the country.
China has grown into an economic powerhouse, and there are already more than 200 Finnish companies operating here - more than twice as many as in the United States.
For the flagship Nokia, China offers the largest market area in the world. The company’s Chairman, Jorma Ollila, is an honorary citizen of Beijing.
Vanhanen tells a group of journalists that the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao spoke candidly to him about the country’s environmental and other problems. “There is not the sort of varnishing of the truth here that was familiar from the Soviet Union”, comments Vanhanen.
Hu Jia has been admitted to hospital. Hence there is a white sedan with no licence plates parked in front of the hospital. Two bored-looking men sit inside the car.
Fortunately there is a side entrance to the building.
“The car without plates belongs to the State Security people”, says Hu Jia, sitting on a hospital bed in his pyjamas.
After being released following 41 days of detention, Hu was in such a critical condition that he needed medical treatment. He has now been on the ward of this Beijing hospital for three weeks. It is his second spell in hospital since the incident.
“The doctor said I have serious liver damage. He asked if I drink a lot”, Hu says.
A devout Buddhist, Hu does not touch alcohol. But Hepatitis B, an inflammation of the liver, can lead to cirrhosis and other complications, especially without medication. Hu’s health also suffered during his detention because he protested by refusing to eat.
“According to Chinese medical thinking, anger affects the liver”, shrugs Hu. “And I have been very angry.”
There is a second door in the room, opening onto the hospital garden. A warm breath of spring comes from outside.
The small, neat hospital ward also contains two other patients, staring at a TV set and showing no interest in our conversation. They have already heard the story of how Hu was abducted nearly three months ago.
That morning, February 16, Hu had wanted to leave for a NGO meeting in Beijing. At the street door downstairs, a posse of around a dozen men was waiting for him. They put a hood over Hu’s head and bundled him into a car.
“It was hard to breathe under the hood. The car drove at high speed, jerkily, and we took a lot of turns. I started to feel sick.”
The ride ended, and Hu was taken inside an unknown place and the hood was removed.
The first thing he saw was a uniformed policeman. There were five or six other men in the room, all in civilian clothes. No one showed any identification.
The men wanted Hu to tell them about the activists’ hunger strike. Who organised it? Who are the people involved? Hu refused to talk.
Hu demanded to be able to make a phone call, but the men refused. Then, frustrated, he grabbed a lamp from a table and hit himself with it.
“I’m a Buddhist, so I do not hit other people. I smashed the lamp onto my own head, because I thought then they would have to take me to a hospital.”
It did not work. He was left bleeding in the room.
Hu speaks about his kidnapping in a lucid and consistent fashion, but many of the details cannot be verified from other sources.
The authorities refuse to talk.
Hu says he was kept in two different places, neither of which was a police station. After the dim room, he was taken to a small suite or apartment. He noticed a sticker on a writing-desk with the name “Starlake Garden Hotel” on it.
A hotel by that name is located in Tongzhou District, on the eastern outskirts of Beijing, not so very far from Hu’s home. The hotel advertises itself as being popular with business travellers, and charges 488 yuan (EUR 49.00) a night for a room.
Hu says that he was kept in the smaller of the rooms. In another room were three or four men watching him around the clock. The curtains and windows were always kept closed, and when Hu wanted to go to bathroom, he had to leave the door open.
Days turned into weeks. He asked to get his medication. The answer was no.
When the end of the month came around and it was time to pay bills, Hu told his captors that his wife needed money, and he demanded that she be given the couple’s credit card. The men promised to see to this.
According to Hu, his minders told him they were police officers, working for the Domestic Security Unit of the Public Security Bureau. He recognised some of the men who had kept watch outside his home earlier. Other men also visited the room from time to time; agents from the Ministry of State Security, Hu concluded.
These two organisations are special units with a remit of maintaining the one-party Communist rule.
Hu says he was never given a reason for his kidnapping.
In the car on the way to freedom, he was threatened with a new detention if he did not give up his civil rights work.
“I will start digging your graves”, the hooded Hu said defiantly, before being dumped in the parking lot of a shopping mall.
Hu’s mobile phone rings several times during our talk. He talks quickly and energetically, always in Chinese. He speaks only a little English. Many of the calls appear to relate to activist projects.
Hu has recovered well. One night he even managed to slip out of the ward without the security agents noticing, and went to have dinner at a restaurant with some friends, dressed in his hospital pyjamas.
The hunger strike has withered, because the participants have been arrested and harassed.
Now Hu is coining new plans. But the chances are that so, too, are the Chinese security services.
Hu has been released from hospital and is a free man again, after a fashion.
He can leave his home, but he is trailed by police everywhere he goes.
“Sometimes they are quite candid about it. Sometimes they hide clumsily behind an opened newspaper.”
Hu winds up his stalkers by taking photos of them.
The summer is heating up. Men are out walking shirtless on the streets of Beijing. The air shimmers in the heat haze on the downtown avenues.
The logos of famous global brands stare down from advertising billboards and neon signs - designer sunglasses rub shoulders with nifty mp3 players.
It is hard to find the old Communist icons in the Beijing streetscape these days. The portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong is still there, hanging at the Gate of Heavenly Peace, the entrance to the Forbidden City, on the side of Tiananmen Square.
Today it is exactly 17 years since the night when this place witnessed a bloodbath. Units of the People’s Liberation Army were sent into the square to attack and disperse the students who were demonstrating there. Many ordinary Beijing citizens attempted to stop the soldiers. They were fired on, and the tanks rumbled in.
It is not known whether civilians died that night in their hundreds, or in the thousands. Some of the demonstrators are still in prison, others live in external exile.
Many of the demands of the 1989 protesters have been realised in the intervening years. The Chinese are now able to choose where they live and work, to set up businesses, to reach for their dreams. Daily life has become freer.
Other things have not moved on from 1989. The democracy movement of today is still calling for more legal oversight on government, for a clampdown on corruption, for respect for civil rights, for democracy.
This is why Hu Jia and other known dissidents are the subject of very rigorous surveillance every year at this time.
His relatives worry that Hu will be snatched once again and that his health will suffer further. For this reason, Hu has voluntarily left Beijing before the anniversary.
Hu and Zeng have travelled south by train to Zhengzhou, the capital and largest city of Henan Province. The police went in his wake, tailed the couple in Zhengzhou, and shadowed them back to Beijing on their return.
No arrest! Hu believes he has got off lightly this year.
Hu Jia travels with a couple of lawyers to Shandong Province, bordering the Yellow Sea. This is the home of the subject of a new campaign by the human rights movement, a blind self-taught lawyer named Chen Guangcheng.
Many of the leading figures in China’s present-day democracy and human rights movement are lawyers. They do not challenge the autocratic rule of the Communist Party head-on, as did the activists of the 1980s, who organised mass demonstrations, or the dissidents of the 1990s, who tried to establish competing political parties.
The present movement insists that the government, too, cannot be above the law. Article 35 of China’s State Constitution from 1982 declares that citizens enjoy “freedom of speech, of the press, of worship, of association, of assembly, and of demonstration”, and that they have the right to criticise the administration.
An increasing number of lawyers have begun to take on sensitive cases where these fundamental rights have been trodden on. Hu is an economist by education, but he belongs to the same movement.
In Shandong, the aim is to help the “blind activist” Chen. He defended local women who were forced by the family planning authorities to take abortions so that the country’s one-child policy could be enforced. Chen exposed many illegalities in the process and was kept under house arrest for months. Now he is awaiting trial.
Problems arise during the trip by Hu and the lawyers. Hu reports later that Chen’s house was guarded by a group of heavily built men. The activists got into a scuffle with them. Hu suffered some injuries as a result.
Back in Beijing, the democracy activists invite foreign journalists to attend a press briefing on the Chen case.
It comes to nothing. The Ministry of State Security officials prevent the organisers from showing up at the venue.
Back under house arrest, says an SMS message from Hu.
The police are once again camped out outside Hu and Zeng’s front door.
There is no way out, or in.
Hu Jia lives on the east side of Beijing. The apartment block area is neat and new, a district populated by the rising Chinese middle class.
These five-storey buildings could be from almost anywhere, even Finland. A row of cars stands in the parking lot out front.
One of the blocks is under special surveillance. Already at the corner there are two men in civilian clothes, and a few metres further on another pair are hanging around. A group of four heavy-set men stand by the steps to the front door of the building.
I walk forward. The men follow me with their eyes. I rather expect them to approach and stop me, but they hesitate. Perhaps it is because I am a foreigner.
Somebody shouts, but I slip between the men into the downstairs stairwell. I run up the four flights of stairs and ring the doorbell.
Hu Jia opens the door and looks almost dumbfounded.
“This is miraculous”, he says, shaking his head.
In recent weeks, nobody has made it in to see Hu and his wife Zeng.
The home of the two dissidents does not look any different from that of any young couple.
There are three rooms. The sofa and table in the living room look as if they have come from IKEA. Drawings by Zeng adorn the pastel-coloured walls. On the floor in front of the TV is a box of DVDs: I spot the American comedy series Friends.
Hu suggests we might watch a home video. He hooks up the camcorder to the television and starts the tape. A group of men in ordinary-looking attire appear on the screen, smoking and playing cards in the yard in front of the house.
“That’s them”, says Hu.
He has been filming his minders in secret from the apartment balcony and from the upstairs landing. The close-ups show the unsmiling faces of bored-looking men.
The video picks out Zeng walking out of the building and across the yard. She is wearing a T-shirt, with a slogan on the back that reads “Tailing, Surveillance, Shameful”.
In the past few days, Zeng has been allowed off the premises, but she is followed at all times by eight police officers. If she takes the car, they tail her in two cars.
Hu has studied his jailers carefully. The video image focuses to show the licence-plate on a black Hyundai sedan: ‘Peking G24758’.
“Those two guys may be the same ones who beat up the lawyer, Gao”, says Hu.
He is referring to the well-known lawyer and critic of the government Gao Zhisheng, who was also among those organising the hunger strike in the spring.
Gao Zhisheng has been active in particular on the subject of the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners.
Three days ago, Gao was beaten up outside his house. He managed to take some pictures of his assailants’ car. It was precisely this black Hyundai.
The tape continues. On the screen, a white van draws up outside Hu’s house.
“That’s a delivery van from the local restaurant. It brings food for the policemen. We’ve lived here for two years, and that same van has been out front every morning and evening.”
In another sequence, one of the plain-clothes officers happens to look up towards Hu’s balcony and catches a glimpse of the camera. The agent quickly darts back into his car and winds up the window.
“Even when they are talking to me they never look me in the eye. I know they are ashamed of what they are doing”, says Hu.
There is a massive security machine underpinning the one-party rule of the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China.
Hu Jia is watched round the clock by at least four or five men. He says that in Beijing alone he knows of dozens like himself who are under the same kind of surveillance. There are nearly 150 cities in China with a population of more than one million.
It is quite possible that as many as tens of thousands of police officers are engaged full-time in watching the citizens.
There are noises from outside on the landing. Hu Jia goes to the door and peers through the glass peephole. He sees nothing. Outside, the evening has grown dark.
Zeng brings juice and watermelon to the table. The Beijing summer is at its sweaty height, and the apartment has no air conditioning. The door is open to the balcony. Washing hangs from a clotheshorse.
Zeng sits next to her husband on the sofa. The couple celebrated their first wedding anniversary the previous week. They spent it at home, prisoners in their own apartment. Zeng talked about having children.
Hu, too, dreams of having a family. But he also dreams of another kind of China, and this struggle is uppermost in his mind at present.
Hu leads me through the dining area and a small kitchen to the back room. The shelf is filled with books. A laptop lies on the desk amidst papers and CDs.
This is a dissident’s study.
The desktop background on the PC is a picture of a smiling Dalai Lama. Hu admires the Tibetan spiritual leader, who has lived in exile since 1959, almost ever since China occupied Tibet more than half a century ago.
Hu Jia, too, feels he is fighting against injustice. He carried on his AIDS work in particular in Henan Province, where hundreds of thousands contracted HIV in the 1990s as a result of receiving contaminated blood in state-run transfusion programmes. The local officials - known as “bloodheads” - went unpunished. When those who had contracted HIV/AIDS sought recompense, they were harassed by the authorities.
Hu learnt that it was pointless to expect fair treatment if those in power could not be held accountable for their actions. For this reason he wants to see in China an independent judiciary, free media, and competing political parties.
“Only then can China truly become a great power.”
When he was younger, Hu believed that by the turn of the millennium China would already be a democracy. It has not happened. So when will it come?
“I believe perhaps as soon as 2010. Many say not for ten to fifteen years from now. In my view, China cannot afford to wait that long. Every day someone is sacrificed.”
Now Hu is waging his struggle largely by sending e-mails. Through a network of activists, civil rights lawyers, and other sources, he is collecting information on people who have been mistreated or detained all over China.
They are a varied bunch. There are those who have been harassed for their religious beliefs, people imprisoned for their opinions, oppressed minorities. And then there are perfectly ordinary citizens who feel that their rights have been trampled on, for example when land has been illegally snatched through compulsory purchase orders, when pensions have vanished in the well of corrupt officialdom, or when their health has been broken by poor working conditions.
According to the reports of the Chinese government itself, in 2004 there were some 87,000 demonstrations or other public disturbances. This comes out at something like 240 protests each day. For the most part they are small and localised, and one province is quite likely to be oblivious to the demonstrations going on in another.
The Communist Party’s fear is that the dissatisfied voices will join forces and form a nationwide movement.
As a result, the leaders of the protests easily find themselves arrested and in jail. Under Chinese law the authorities can decide on sending someone to a forced-labour camp without due process or a court hearing. China executes more people than the rest of the world put together.
Hu is constantly writing demands on these matters to government offices, appeals to international organisations, memos and updates to journalists.
It is the work of a lobbyist.
It is also unpaid work. His wife Zeng is now the breadwinner in the household. She goes to work at the decorating supplies firm owned by Hu’s father.
Hu’s father also sees to the mortgage repayments on the couple’s apartment. He takes no part in his son’s activism.
Back in the days of Mao’s purges of 1957, Hu’s father was branded as a rightist and subjected to “re-education through labour”. He spent more than 20 years in forced labour, in prisons and camps around the Chinese countryside.
“My father says he has already suffered so much that he no longer has the stomach for this.”
Hu’s father does not want to see his son’s life destroyed, too, at the hands of the Communists. He has urged Hu to turn away from revolt and dissent and to concentrate on his own life, to act like other young people do.
In a corner of the study there is a small altar, candles, and a statue of Buddha. Hu and Zeng often pray together.
Hu turned to Buddhism after the massacre in Tiananmen Square, because the faith emphasised non-violence. Hu is a strict vegetarian. When he is at liberty to do so, he regularly attends the temples in the city, for instance the Yonghegong or Lama Temple and Monastery, familiar with tourists to the capital. It is one of the largest Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in the world.
Hu does not always feel that he is a very devout Buddhist.
“According to Buddhist doctrines it is wrong to feel anger. But I am often angry at the actions of the police or for various injustices. I should learn mercy.”
It is getting late. Hu and Zeng see me to the door.
In the yard of the apartment building a uniformed policeman approaches me.
“You are aware, I am sure, that according to the regulations a foreigner in China must carry his passport at all times”, he says.
I hand him my passport.
“You are aware, I am sure, that according to the regulations you must submit an application in advance for a permit for all interviews, from the Propaganda Department of the Beijing Foreign Affairs Bureau.”
I have stashed the memory-card from the digital camera in my sock. My notes are stuffed inside my underpants.
The police officer looks in my case, but does not take his search any further. He orders me over to a building by the street entrance to answer some questions.
The police want to know why I have been to see Hu and what I have asked him. After about half an hour I am nevertheless informed that I can go.
By the gate leading to the street is a sign, for Hu’s apartment complex: “Bobo Freedom City”.
Continued. Please click on the link below.
More on this subject:
The Year of the Dog - A Chinese activist's story
The Year of the Dog (Part Three)
The Year of the Dog (Part Four)
SAMI SILLANPÄÄ / Helsingin Sanomat