From 'Freedom City' to Freedom of Thought

Human rights activist Hu Jia, shown here during an interview at his home in Beijing on January 9, 2007, won the EU parliament's prestigious Sakharov Prize. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
Human rights activist Hu Jia, shown here during an interview at his home in Beijing on January 9, 2007, won the EU parliament's prestigious Sakharov Prize. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

by Nobuyoshi Sakajiri
Asia Society Bernard Schwartz Fellow

“Freedom City” is the name of the apartment building in Beijing where Hu Jia, 35, who received the European Parliament’s 2008 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought on October 23, lived with his family until he was arrested last December. The outspoken human rights activist known for his work with Chinese citizens infected with HIV/AIDS is now serving a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence for “inciting subversion against the state.”

The Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, named in honor of the Soviet physicist and political dissident Andrei Sakharov, is awarded by the European Parliament every year to individuals who have made an important contribution to the fight for human rights or democracy. The prize ceremony will take place in Strasbourg on December 17, but Hu Jia will most likely not be present.

The last time I saw Hu was a year ago, a day after his daughter Qianci was born. ”My wife delivered our baby!,” said Hu’s text message. I visited them the next morning at the hospital in Beijing and found at least three plainclothes police officers. They would walk around, and look into the room his wife, Zeng Jinyan, 25, shared with five other patients.

Hu rattled the Chinese Communist Party by being “a pipeline” of information, providing the international community with first-hand information about the government’s systematic crackdown on Chinese human rights activists prior to the Olympic Games.

In his e-mails to journalists, he attached copies of the arrest warrants given to the families of the detained activists, audio recordings of the activists’ families, and videos showing the brutality of the local police. He became an important source for journalists and diplomats in Beijing and international human rights groups.

After taking Hu Jia away from “Freedom City,” six policemen stayed in Hu’s house for several days and monitored his wife, Zeng Jinyan, a famous blogger, who was selected as one of TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2007. According to Zeng, policemen even forced her to leave the door open every time she went to the bathroom, allegedly for her “safety.”

I visited Zeng in February when she and her daughter were still under house arrest. The police stayed in a room right above their apartment. Visitors were strictly screened—just before my interview two German and French diplomats tried to see Zeng, but the police wouldn’t let them. “You are the first guest since his arrest,” she told me. But after her verbal welcome, she used a pen and paper to communicate with me because she didn’t want the conversation to be recorded by the policemen. At the end of our conversation, she wrote, “My one and only wish now is [to] get him back.”

August 7, the day before the opening ceremony of the Olympics, Zeng said Beijing police escorted her and her daughter from their home to see Hu Jia in jail. But after a short meeting with him, Zeng and her daughter were kept incommunicado in the coastal city of Dalian until August 23, the day before the end of the Games. They were detained without any charge.

By arresting Hu, the CCP thought it could shut off the faucet that was leaking information on its human rights abuses. Chinese President Hu Jintao had given great emphasis to the successful hosting of the Games as a symbol of “China’s capability of making more contributions to human civilization.”

The slogan of the Games was “One Dream, One World”—but Hu Jia had a different dream. “I want 2008 to be China’s human rights year,” he once told me.

Hu suffers from cirrhosis but the Chinese government has rejected Zeng’s application for Hu’s medical parole. Like Wei Jingsheng who received the 1996 Sakharov Prize and Wang Dan—Chinese activists who led the democracy movement in the late '70s and '80s and who are now living in exile—China may send Hu out of the country for medical treatment in order to reduce his influence inside China. But I’m not sure if Hu Jia, who calls himself a “patriot,” would accept it. Whether he would be able to return to “Freedom City," nobody knows.


Nobuyoshi Sakajiri is a Bernard Schwartz Fellow at the Asia Society and was a Beijing correspondent for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun from April 2005 to August 2008. The views expressed are his own.