While the world celebrates the Beijing Olympics we should not forget that China’s human rights record remains as tarnished as ever, writes international gay rights activist Peter Tatchell.
Campaigners highlighting China’s appalling human rights record ahead of the Olympic Games are sometimes accused of trying to force ‘Western values’ onto an unwilling Chinese public. But why should only people in our hemisphere be entitled to liberty or free speech? These misguided criticisms also completely ignore China’s many brave human rights defenders.
The stereotype of Chinese people as a mute and obedient mass is way off the mark. While the media is tightly controlled, the internet and mobile phones have allowed people to debate and mobilise. There were 87,000 known protests in China in 2005.
These included strikes by low paid workers and mass demonstrations by communities that were uprooted, often with little or no compensation, to make way for the Olympic venues or, further afield, evicted from their homes to create sites for new cities, dams and roads. Many of these protesters were violently suppressed.
In the lead-up to the Olympics, this repression has intensified, with activists, lawyers and journalists facing imprisonment or banishment from Beijing for the duration of the games.
Beijing human rights activist Hu Jia is one of the regime’s many victims. He was tried on trumped up charges of ‘inciting subversion’. Found guilty, in April he was sentenced to three and a half years imprisonment and one year’s deprivation of his political rights.
Hu’s wife and father were prevented from attending the trial and many of his human rights colleagues were barred from the courtroom or sent out of Beijing for the duration of the trial. His lawyers were only given three working days to prepare his defence.
When I ambushed the Olympic torch in London in April, I held up a placard demanding: “Free Tibet. Free Hu Jia.” I was enraged that this courageous, compassionate man had been deprived of his liberty for the ‘crime’ of defending the human rights of the Chinese people.
“Jailing such a high-profile human rights defender sends a deliberately intimidating message to other activists – you could be next…”
Despite its claims to be a communist state, China is now the world’s most ruthless example of free market capitalism. The gap between the rich and the poor is one of the widest of any country on earth. Workers have fewer rights than in the capitalist West. This system of injustice is maintained by police state methods.
Hu Jia’s ‘crime’ was to be an activist exposing the many injustices of China’s post-communist state-controlled capitalist tyranny.
He became prominent as a HIV/AIDS activist, founding the HIV/AIDS organisation, Loving Source, and repeatedly criticising the Chinese government’s failure to deliver an effective AIDS prevention and care programme. He also helped expose the official cover-up over the use of HIV-contaminated blood.
Hu’s activism covered many other issues too: the plight of the rural poor, religious persecution, repression in Tibet, police abuses and the victimisation of other human rights activists. He also championed environmental protection and the plight of the imprisoned lawyer Cheng Guancheng.
In November 2007, Hu Jia participated via webcam in an EU parliamentary hearing in Brussels, stating that China had failed to fulfil its promises to improve human rights in the run-up to the Olympics. Soon after this webcam speech, the police swooped, breaking into his home and arresting him. His wife, Zeng Jinyan, and their infant daughter have been under house arrest ever since.
Police encircle their home and Zeng Jinyan can’t even take her baby out for a walk or get the powdered milk she needs for feeds. Chillingly, the police have warned her to think long and hard about the impact on her baby if she were to speak to foreign media and be jailed herself.
Hu Jia has just spent his 35th birthday in prison. His family were denied permission to visit him. They are deeply worried. He is suffering from liver disease and he may not be getting proper medical treatment. What’s more, relatives who have previously managed to visit him say that guards have appointed four other prisoners to ‘monitor’ Hu and that he is being forced to sing ‘reform songs’.
My life as a human rights activist has never required even half the sacrifices of Hu Jia. Yes, I’ve been beaten up and arrested many times, and in 1973 I was interrogated by the Stasi in what was then East Germany, after staging the first ever gay rights protest in a communist country. But my liberty has never been seriously threatened. My family have not suffered as a result of what I do.
Sometimes as an activist you wonder whether you’re being effective. Hu Jia need have no such doubts. His imprisonment by the Chinese regime shows that he is having an impact and has to be silenced. Jailing such a high-profile human rights defender sends a deliberately intimidating message to other activists – you could be next.
China made promises to improve its human rights record when it was bidding to host the Olympics. Instead, it has intensified the repression of dissidents. Heroes like Hu Jia are the best hope that human rights will eventually come to China, but for the duration of the Olympics – and for a further three years – he will be behind bars.
For more information about Amnesty International’s support for the victims of human rights abuses in China: www.amnesty.org.uk/china