The moral strength shown by Hu Jia, jailed in China for subversion, stands in sharp contrast to the state that persecutes him
On June 4 1990, a year after the Beijing massacre, a young man stood in Tiananmen Square – which was full of armed soldiers and police – with a small white flower pinned to his black outfit, a traditional sign of mourning in China. His name was Hu Jia, and he was a high school student in Beijing.
In the 18 years that have passed since that day, Hu Jia has forged a consistent path. He volunteered to plant trees in the desert in China after graduating from college; he has been an advocate for HIV/Aids patients since 2000; and he became one of China’s most vocal and uncompromising human rights activists after lending his name to a campaign for an imprisoned online writer. In 2004, he again brought flowers to Tiananmen Square. Chinese police arrested him, and demanded his mother take him to a psychiatric hospital to have him examined. I believe the police officers did this not because they wanted to use a mental hospital to persecute Hu Jia (as the Chinese government has done to other political dissidents); rather, in the view of the Chinese party-state, this wan, softly-spoken young man, who has chosen a life of compassionate action over the past 15 years, must be crazy.
True, Hu Jia does not have the power of a state or a political party behind him. He walked anonymously around the streets of Beijing, without crowds following him, except a group of plain clothes police. He does not even enjoy good health, and now can only walk in his prison cell. But Hu Jia has lived a life of purity and dignity. And the measure of the moral power of such a life is best seen in contrast to the gargantuan state that imprisoned him.
This kind of dignity is not evident in the spectacular Olympics opening ceremony, nor in the Chinese astronauts who recently completed a space walk. In those productions, we see only the power and glory of the state. Most recently and tragically, we have seen thousands of Chinese babies hospitalised for drinking tainted milk powder following a state media cover-up of the contamination in the run-up to the Olympics – one example of many illustrating the human price Chinese people have paid for the powerful and glorious image of the state.
Hu Jia has chosen to stand with those who suffer, and to lend his voice to those who are voiceless in Chinese society. He has also confronted his persecutors, and brilliantly tapped into the power of digital advocacy. By doing so, he has become a living symbol of defiance and resistance to the world’s most powerful authoritarian state. He has paid a price for the moral path he chose. But he deserves the honour of the European Parliament’s Sakharov prize for freedom of thought, not as compensation for his suffering, but as recognition of the simple, but powerful, message embodied in such a courageous life: Chinese people do want, demand and deserve human rights and the fundamental freedom to live with dignity, just like all other people on this planet.