Sun, Oct 26, 2008 - Page 14 News List

SUNDAY PROFILE: Activist defies China’s panoptic glare

He has been detained at a secret site, subjected to house arrest and seen his wife and friends harassed by the authorities, but Chinese dissident Hu Jia, winner of the EU’s top human-rights prize, refuses to be silenced

By Bill Smith  /  DPA , BEIJING

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His name was familiar to US President George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) months before he won the EU’s Sakharov prize for human rights, yet just a few years ago China’s most prominent dissident was a largely unknown activist for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS.

Hu Jia’s (胡佳) international reputation grew while he was forced to spend most of his time confined inside his suburban apartment on the outskirts of Beijing in 2006 and last year.

Before his formal arrest in late December, Hu had spent most of the previous two years under virtual house arrest or other forms of detention.

With no paid employment and few visitors allowed, he used his enforced isolation to act as a bridge between foreign media and the growing number of rights activists across the country.

Each weekday, Hu collected and disseminated information on rights cases and other issues in China via the Internet and telephone.

He also learned the names of many of the State Security officers who loitered outside his apartment every day.

Some of them remain stationed there to prevent his wife, fellow activist Zeng Jinyan (曾金燕), from speaking to foreign media and governments.

But Hu and Zeng did manage to testify by telephone to a European Parliamentary hearing on China’s human rights record in November last year.

Hu’s activism began in the late 1990s when the economics graduate volunteered to work on environmental projects.

In 2001, he began helping villagers infected with HIV/AIDS through blood-selling schemes in the central province of Henan.

The following year, Hu and four friends had their first run-in with state security police who intercepted them and seized film after they traveled to Henan villages.

The group took Christmas toys and clothes to children in poor villages that were decimated through AIDS spread by the illegal collection and sale of blood.

“It seemed like the worst scenes of AIDS in Africa, with old and young people infected,” Hu said.

“State security police threatened us and said that AIDS was a state secret,” he said.

Hu believes that China was “lucky” to be shaken out of its complacency on AIDS by the scandal over a cover-up of cases of SARS in Beijing.

“After SARS in 2003, nobody dared to say that AIDS was a state secret any more,” Hu said. “It gave us an opportunity to be more open.”

His continued advocacy for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS in China brought him international attention and several awards.

But after two “golden years” of relatively open activism, the climate began to change with the arrest and harassment of AIDS activists in 2005, he said.

His own surveillance became a little more relaxed after the birth of the couple’s first child in November last year.

The Dalai Lama sent a Tibetan name for their daughter at their request, he said, in a move that can only have further angered the Chinese government.

Hu is a practicing Tibetan Buddhist and Zeng met the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, in his Indian exile in 2006.

Hu and Zeng also released a short documentary last year about their surveillance, and excerpts are now widely available on the Internet.

“A week after our wedding party, Hu Jia was put under house arrest by the State Security police and after a month he disappeared ... and there was no news for 41 days,” Zeng said at the start of the 30-minute film, Prisoners of Freedom City.

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