Activism in China: Compromise or Prison

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We have written often about the rights activist Hu Jia, most recently here) after he was formally arrested in December. He’s been detained a number of times and was also under house arrest for a while but this time he’s been formally arrested and charged with “inciting the overthrow of the state” (煽动颠覆国家), which makes it all but certain he will receive a heavy prison sentence.

His case has lead other activists and friends to write about the anguish Hu’s arrest caused them and pen tributes to his bravery in standing up for what he saw as right and not compromising despite enormous pressure from the government. But not everyone is like Hu, who refused to back down. Others–many others–choose to work within the system, imperfect though it may be. The soul searching inspired by his arrest also produced some fascinating insights into the compromises necessary to function as an activist in today’s China and the feelings of shame they can sometimes inspire.

One example is Zhai Minglei, a journalist and sometime activist who ran a small magazine called Minjian (民间, it can variously mean non-governmental, popular or folk, as in folk music) Zhai had managed to keep publishing despite pressure from the authorities but in December the magazine was shut down and the hard disk was removed from Zhai’s computer by the police. A gloomy assessment of his experience and what it means for free speech on the Chinese web by the ever excellent Rebecca Mckinnon can be found here. In a recent blog post, Zhai eloquently describes his mixed feelings on hearing of Hu arrest.

It’s new year’s day today, but all I can feel is coldness.

Hu Jia was detained on Dec. 27th for “inciting subversion of the government”. The police stealthily broke into Hu Jia’s apartment and suddenly appeared in his bedroom unexpected. Hu Jia was huslted before he could even put on his coat and shoes. Hu’s wife, the young Zeng Jinyan was bathing their one and a half month old daughter, Hu Qianci at the time. She was also put under police orders in her home. The telephone in the couple’s home was disconnected, their bank cards were confiscated, and all their communication and filming equipment were taken away. Six policemen moved into their apartment.

My wife and I were dumbstruck. We toured the museums with our parents, had New Year dinner with our families, but all the time, even when we settled in our warm bed, we kept thinking about Hu Jia and Jinyan. Thinking about the policemen living with Jinyan, my wife wept–“How could they? How?” But I had no answer for her but silence.

I feel a surge of guilt thinking of Hu Jia. I have never openly supported his work. Like everyone else, although we are friends and I respect his work, i kept my distance. We saw each other once or twice a year at most, and when visiting him at home, I always sneaked into the door, careful not to attract any attention from the guarding national security police. The only daring thing I did was to publish Jinyan’s articles on my publication in spite of a police warning not to.

That was because I was afraid that supporting Hu Jia would affect my work. I was then putting together a magazine, Min Jian, and I didn’t want to attract trouble. …Whenever we met, I deliberately didn’t mention Hu Jia’s work. I had many reasons, but basically I didn’t want to end up like him: someone always at the door watching you, no one daring to visit.