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China's 'one man clearing house' in jail

Latest update : 2008-04-03

Wielding the web and his Rolodex, Hu Jia has been a thorn in the Chinese government's side. But on Thursday, China flexed its muscles and sentenced the prominent activist to jail. (Report: C. Norris-Trent)

A lean, bespectacled man with a penchant for intense conversations and obsessively photographing his wife and infant daughter, Hu Jia does not cut a very imposing figure. But the 34-year-old activist is arguably the biggest thorn in the Chinese government’s side.


Dubbed a “one-man clearing house” for information on China, Hu has audaciously taken on the Chinese authorities, criticising their track record on human rights, animal rights and more sensitively, on Tibet.


His arsenal, which he has wielded with considerable expertise for nearly a decade, has included the Internet, the phone, a rolodex of contacts for journalists, embassies and NGOs across the world, as well as his mouth.


But on Thursday, Chinese authorities displayed their might. At a court hearing in Beijing barred to the international press, Hu was sentenced to three-and-a-half years for “inciting subversion of state power and the socialist system.”


The reaction, predictably, was swift and strong. Within hours, the European Union and the United States criticised the verdict, calling for an improvement on China’s human rights record.


Coming at a time when the Olympic torch is making its way across the world - and just a day after London-based Amnesty International issued a stinging report on China’s “wave of repression” ahead of the 2008 Beijing Games, Hu’s sentencing has grave implications for China’s rights record, according to experts.


“This verdict is a slap in the face for Hu Jia and a warning to any other activists in China who dare to raise human rights concerns publicly,” said Amnesty’s Mark Allison in an emailed statement to FRANCE 24. “It also betrays promises made by Chinese officials that human rights would improve in the run-up to the Olympics.”


No information on appealing sentence


In a rare phone interview with FRANCE 24 hours after the sentencing, Hu's wife, Zeng Jinyan, was testy but tough about Thursday’s verdict. “It’s a very unjust verdict, very severe, very irrational,” said Zeng.


A prominent activist in her own right, Hu’s Zeng  has been under house arrest in recent months, with her telephone cut off. Friends in China and across the world have only managed to reach her via SMS messages.


Under Chinese law, the “inciting subversion” charge can entail a jail term of five years or longer. Shortly before the hearing, Hu’s lawyer Li Fangping said a long sentence was likely, according to Reuters.


Li told reporters he was unaware of any deal in return for the sentence.


In her phone interview with FRANCE 24, an audibly disturbed Zeng said she had no idea whether her husband wished to appeal his sentence. “For the moment, I’m not sure whether he will appeal the sentence because I have not been able to see him after the verdict was delivered,” she said.


‘A very unjust verdict’, according to wife


For the small, but impassioned community of Web dissidents on the ground in China, Hu’s sentencing has been a nerve wracking experience.


“I’m worried for my other friends, I’m very worried for his wife,” said Zhang, an observer for FRANCE 24 and a friend of Hu’s wife.


A diminutive 24-year-old activist, Zeng shot to international fame in 2006, when her husband was detained by the Chinese government without any legal proceedings. In a desperate attempt to draw attention to her plight, Zeng started a blog detailing her experiences and the hairy conditions in which the couple lived, under constant state surveillance.


Her steadfastness and sardonic style immediately won her worldwide recognition. Last year, “Time” magazine nominated her one of 100 most influential people in the world, calling her a “Tiananmen 2.0” for “blogging truth to power.”


‘Prisoners in Freedom City’


Together, Hu and Zeng have been formidable, media-savvy opponents of China’s state repression.


When security officials put them under house arrest from August 2006 to March 2007, the couple turned the cameras on themselves, making “Prisoners in Freedom City,” a 31-minute documentary on the infuriating, sometimes absurd levels of surveillance they were subjected to.


The documentary title was a wry play on the couple’s residential address in a Beijing neighbourhood known as Bobo Freedom City.


On Dec. 30 2007, just days after his daughter was born, Hu was arrested in his Beijing apartment. He has been in detention since.


Date created : 2008-04-03