Hu Jia Represents China’s Best Hope

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The European Parliament last week awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, Europe’s most prestigious human rights award, to the Chinese human rights activist Hu Jia. The new generation of civil society activists whom Hu Jia represents is China’s best hope for addressing the country’s enormous social and environmental problems. The award’s condemnation by the Chinese government is a sign of weakness and fear.

Hu Jia started out as an activist against environmental destruction and for the rights of AIDS victims. He began to promote human rights more generally when he realized that the lacking freedom of expression severely hampered his efforts for social and environmental improvements in China. A close friend who knows Hu from his days as an environmental activist describes him as stubborn and uncompromising, but also gentle and deeply caring. Hu’s uncompromising approach ruffled many feathers, and at the same time opened much space for more cautious activists in China.

In April 2008, Hu Jia was sentenced to three years and six months in prison for “incitement to subvert state power”. His punishment was widely interpreted as a warning to other human rights activists not to speak out in the run-up and during the Beijing Olympics. Against all hopes, the Chinese government has not abated its crack-down on the freedom of speech after the Olympics. It even continues to refuse appropriate medical treatment for Hu Jia, who suffers from chronic Hepatitis B. Hu’s wife Zeng Jinyan, who is under house arrest, has documented her husband’s ill-treatment and her own harassment in her courageous blog.

The Chinese government has condemned the award as a “political attempt to grossly interfere in China’s internal affairs and infringe upon China’s judiciary sovereignty”. The protest puts Beijing into bad company. Earlier governments which condemned the award of human rights prizes to their own citizens included Breshnev’s Soviet Union (Nobel Prize for Andrei Sakharov, the patron of the European award, in 1975), South Africa’s apartheid regime (Nobel Prize for Desmond Tutu in 1984), and Burma’s military junta (Nobel Peace Prize for Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991).

When, China’s most popular website, reported about the government’s response to the award of the Sakharov Prize, the site received thousands of comments within a few hours. Many of them were blocked, and thus presumably supportive of Hu Jia. The article has in the meantime been removed from SINA’s website.

Beijing’s harsh response to the award is not a sign of self-confidence and strength. China cannot overcome its enormous social and environmental challenges without contributions from all sectors of society, including civil society. Hu Jia and his fellow activists represent the best hope for China’s future. It is depressing to see such brilliant, selfless and committed people being silenced and even punished rather than getting the chance to improve their country’s situation. What a waste of talent and intelligence!

The prize award is an opportunity for Beijing to reconsider its harsh oppression of human rights activists. Human Rights Watch has asked that the government immediately exonerate Hu or at least grant him medical parole. We can only support this call.

Peter Bosshard is the policy director of International Rivers. His blog, Wet, Wild and Wonky, appears at