Another Chinese Dissident Released, but Still No Beijing Spring

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Prominent Chinese dissident Hu Jia posing for a photograph, which his wife Zeng Jinyan later posted on Twitter, at his home in Beijing on June 27, 2011. (Photo: Zeng Jinyan / AFP / Getty Images)

Hu Jia, a Chinese dissident who was arrested in a clampdown ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, was released early Sunday after serving a three-and-a-half year prison sentence. Hu, who worked on environmental issues and helped AIDS patients, was convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” in connection with several articles he wrote, including an open letter to the Beijing government about Chinese human rights abuses. His wife, Zeng Jinyan, tweeted that Hu had returned home at 2:30 am Sunday. “Safe and happy,” she wrote. “Need to rest for some time.”

Hu is the second prominent dissident to be released this week following Ai Weiwei, the contemporary artist who was let go Wednesday after 81 days in detention. In addition, four associates of Ai who were detained, likely as part of the investigation into his taxes, were also released in recent days, says Liu Xiaoyuan, a lawyer and friend of Ai. Those releases might give the impression that the Chinese government is relaxing the crackdown launched in February, after an anonymous call to bring the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt to China was issued online. But it is worth noting that Hu was released only after serving his prison term. And like Ai, he now faces a long period of restrictions. His movements will be monitored, and it is unlikely he will be able to give interviews or issue the sort of challenging statements he did in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics.

A follower of Tibetan Buddhism, Hu once called on the government to allow the Dalai Lama to come to Beijing during the Olympics and urged the government to grant greater autonomy to Tibet. He criticized the 2008 Olympics as a political sideshow, but held out hope—since unrealized—that they could help force a liberalization of the country’s authoritarian system as the Seoul Olympics did for South Korea in 1988. “It cannot be just like the 1936 Berlin Games and the rise of fascism, or it will make the Chinese Communist Party think it has approval of the whole world,” he told me in a 2007 interview. “In Beijing, so many places have been torn down, so many people have been made homeless and arrested. People think there are problems with the Olympics. There are people in China who say, ‘We want human rights, not the Olympics.’”

In February 2006, when police held him incommunicado for 41 days, his wife began a blog detailing their struggles. Her writing led to her being named to the TIME 100 in 2007. Arianna Huffington called her “the online progeny of the protester who blocked a column of advancing tanks during China’s Tiananmen uprising in 1989.” Hu and Zeng’s technological savvy helped them get their message beyond the police that regularly surround their apartment. They made a documentary about life under surveillance in their apartment complex, which has the unlikely name of Bobo Freedom City, and distributed it online. The title? “Prisoners of Freedom City.”

For many Chinese activists, release from a prison cell merely means a return to house arrest or some form of extrajudicial restriction. Chen Guangcheng, a blind legal activist and friend of Hu Jia who was released in 2010 after serving a four-year prison term for damaging a property and organizing an illegal protest, now lives with his wife under a strict house arrest in their hometown in Shandong province. After they released a video of the conditions they face in February, the couple was severely beaten.

Hu’s supporters fear that despite his release, he and his family will continue to face restrictions. “I’m concerned that they might put them under house arrest or strict control in some place,” Wan Yanhai, a Chinese AIDS activist who lives in the U.S. told TIME last week, ahead of Hu’s release. “What the Chinese government has repeatedly told told the international media is that china follows the rule of law. But now they need to show they are doing that.”