BEIJING, Oct 23, 2008 -- Hu Jia, the most prominent human rights dissident in China, was today awarded the Sakharov prize, the European Union's highest human rights honor, much to the dismay of the Chinese government.
Hu is the most prominent human rights dissident in China. So it is not a coincidence that he sits in jail serving a 3½ year term for "inciting state subversion."
The foreign affairs spokesman for the European Parliament said the award, which is given annually to a person or group for achievements in human rights or for promotion of democracy, highlights the "authoritarian and repressive nature of the communist government in China."
Hu is currently in a high-security jail in Beijing. His wife, Zeng Jinyan, also an activist, can visit him only when prison officials allow it. She lives under house arrest with their infant daughter, and reporters are prevented from visiting their home by guards who block the entrance to the apartment building. But we reached Zeng Jinyan by phone while she was out of the house.
"I am not sure if they are following me now," she told ABC News, "but I think maybe they are."
She said she is happy to hear about the award but is more concerned with Hu's health. " I think Hu Jia will be happy if he hears about it," she said. I hope he can come home soon." Hu has liver disease, and he told his wife he recently received a health check in prison but hasn't yet received the results.
Hu is a bold dissident who has written and fought about the arrests and harassment of other activists. His activism spans a wide range of issues, from HIV/AIDS, land rights, freedom of speech and religion. He made a documentary about what it was like to live under house arrest in China.
In November 2007, when Hu was still under house arrest, he testified via webcam to the European Parliament about human rights abuses in China. Days later he was arrested. He was convicted last April, a few months before the start of the Beijing Olympics.
Chinese domestic media has remained virtually silent on Hu Jia's case except for state-run wire service reports when Hu's prison sentence was announced. But Hu is well-known in human rights communities around the world, and foreign journalists have followed his case closely.
The Chinese government speaks about Hu only when asked about him during regularly scheduled foreign ministry press conferences. It says Hu's case is a "domestic issue" and has strongly condemned his nomination for this and other human rights awards. Hu Jia was also reportedly a top contender for the Nobel Peace Prize, which he did not win.
It is highly unlikely that any state-run media will report that he has now been honored with the Sakharov prize.
Li Fangping, a human rights lawyer who represented Hu, told ABC News, "Hu Jia's case is a reflection of the human rights situation in China, and he represents the voice of the ordinary people's longing for human rights."
A week ago, China's ambassador to the EU, Song Zhe, sent a letter to the president of the EU assembly expressing "much regret" at the consideration of Hu Jia for the award. Song said that this could damage the already fragile relationship between the EU and China, which is still recovering from the Olympic torch relay interruptions in Paris and London.
Despite the hardship that speaking out has caused her family, Zeng still blogs about her experience and her visits to her husband. She recently wrote about her daughter:
"Baobao will soon be 1 year old. She can make a dozen or so staggering steps of her own, got her ninth tooth, likes cats and goes to see the wild cats in the courtyard almost every day. When she sees them, she laughs happily. She would like to touch them but is also very nervous about it, putting her small hand into her mouth. If Hu Jia could see her, he would certainly be very glad!"
On Friday in Beijing, EU and Asian leaders gather for a summit to discuss the global financial crisis and how to reverse some of the damage and prevent further downturns. French President Nicholas Sarkozy has said that he hopes to convince Chinese and other Asian leaders to join the EU in taking big steps to alleviate the crisis.
It has yet to be seen whether the Chinese will take this award into consideration as they decide to what extent to get involved. The Chinese normally take a pragmatic approach when it comes to the economy, but there will certainly be some sort of symbolic backlash to what the government considers an embarrassing slap in the face.