Activist Hu Jia’s Family Nightmare
The essay that follows was written by Zeng Jinyan, whose husband, Hu Jia, has been prominently involved in activism around environmental issues, AIDS, and human rights in China over the past decade and a half and is a winner of the European Parliament’s Andrei Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. From 2008 to 2011, he served a three and a half year prison sentence for inciting state subversion. Since his release, he has lived under varying degrees of surveillance and house arrest in his apartment in Beijing. He continues to write and is an active presence on Twitter. Zeng and Hu separated in 2012, and Zeng now lives in Hong Kong with their six-year-old daughter.
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Baobao: “Fuck!” Me: “Where’d you learn that word?” Baobao: “Daddy’s good friends said it!” Me: “Which good friends?” Baobao: “Two of Daddy’s friends who stay in the same hotel with us, the ones who sleep in the rooms on either side of ours.”
I was silent for a moment. Okay, I said finally: “Next time Daddy’s friends say that, tell them they shouldn’t say such vulgar things when kids are around.”
My daughter, who’s almost seven years old, went back to her play.
I didn’t tell her that Daddy’s “friends” are actually plainclothes cops from state security -- guobao -- sent to keep watch over her father, preventing him from taking her out to see friends. Neither did I tell her that these “friends” had been part of our lives ever since she was in the womb. It was impossible to explain to her why her mommy and daddy, who loved each other very much, are now separated. In the two years since she and I moved to Hong Kong, spending holidays with her father in various hotels in cities across mainland China has become a routine for her. Daddy’s “friends” come and go, sometimes dropping in and out, sometimes completely dominating the schedules of these holidays.
Her father has no choice; if he didn’t accept their presence, he’d have no way to watch his daughter grow. He couldn’t give her rides on his shoulders, couldn’t keep pace with her as she learns rudimentary English, couldn’t laugh at the funny stories she tells in Cantonese, and couldn’t answer her when she asks: “Why can’t Daddy get the papers he needs to come to Hong Kong?” At the end of almost every holiday, Daddy’s “friends” usually disregard the injunction not to get too familiar with her, and hug her, take her picture, give her presents. Some of these she cherishes, like the little stuffed bear she won’t let go of; others her mom has to confiscate: a pair of pink child-sized high-heeled shoes, big bowls of ice cream, huge piles of chocolates.
Cozy and content, my daughter falls asleep to the sound of her father reading her bedtime stories, slipping off into dreams of Journey to the West, The Magic School Bus, Pippi Longstocking... Each time, she spends a dozen nights or so in a hotel. Meanwhile, I stay in contact with relatives and friends who live in the same city so that if, god forbid, anything should happen, they could immediately whisk her back to my side. At the same time, I keep tabs on how my daughter is feeling by looking at pictures and listening to voice messages sent via mobile phone. I do my best to ensure that at this tender age my daughter doesn’t sink into angry indignation or get pulled into politics, that she has the foundation of a basically happy childhood. After her father was violently attacked in July, I had to ask him not to reveal the exact itineraries or locations of their holidays together. Hu Jia has stuck by this agreement.
Political oppression is only the beginning of the dangers to which Hu Jia has been subjected. Since 2004, in addition to serving jail time, he’s been under constant surveillance by state security. He has been threatened, violently harassed, put under house arrest, abducted, and followed. At the end of May 2014, secret police showed up at the home of Hu Jia’s parents and told them that their son would soon be detained, and when his 76-year-old mother begged to see him in order to give him rice dumplings for the Dragon Boat Festival, they refused, saying, “Arrangements have already been made, and it’s too late to visit him.”
We made phone call after phone call, trying to alleviate some of the anxiety he was feeling, cooped up alone in his room while under house arrest. I promised that even though we are separated I will remain legally married to him, and that in the event that he is sent to jail again I will manage all the legal proceedings, his friends will appeal for his release, and I will care for his parents and our child. We understood that he might be arrested at any time, and all we could do was stay prepared. Right now he lives an agonizing existence, which I can only compare to being roasted on a spit -- the conditions are in some ways harsher than jail. Every day he must fight for the right to leave his house. Sometimes the struggle pays off, and he’s able to walk around outside while accompanied by plainclothes police. Sometimes the restrictions enrage him, and he resists physically. But in the end, all he can do is go back to his apartment in BOBO Freedom City in Beijing, accept the absolute helplessness of his situation, and try not to exhaust himself.
But the greater direct danger comes from the public: bystanders who are powerless to help, idle onlookers who act as accomplices, or crazy people. On July 16 near the Caofang subway station in Beijing’s Chaoyang District, two anonymous assailants attacked Hu Jia. And this came on the heels of numerous death threats. He has reported to the police five different telephone numbers from which he has received threatening messages, but while state security personnel may subject him to draconian restrictions, they don’t lift a finger when someone spills red paint all over his car, when an ill-wisher leaves a dagger embedded in a rag doll on Hu Jia’s parents’ doorstep, when strangers take pictures of his house and send him death threats saying they’re digging his grave.
I’ve been harassed and threatened through Skype, WeChat, FaceTime, text messages, voicemail, MMS, and late-night phone calls. Even my parents have received threatening phone calls in the middle of the night. I have no idea how these strangers get ahold of our phone numbers, and why messages sent to us from different social media accounts all say exactly the same thing, as if they had been coordinated. Even in Hong Kong I don’t feel safe.
The direct dangers to Hu Jia are easy to see. But an epidemic of hidden dangers envelops everyone from governmental institutions to ordinary people, turning them into unwitting accomplices to cruel political oppression.
Lately, rumors of Hu Jia’s having had illicit love affairs have been spreading all over the Internet. Many reporters and online commentators aren’t willing to take the time to check who exactly is issuing these statements. They don’t fact-check obvious distortions, couch their claims using vague phrases like “sources report,” and don’t examine the principles by which people behave. They don’t even try to understand what life is like for an activist subjected to long-term isolation and confinement by the secret police. They quote out of context, court public attention using provocative language, and propagate slanderous rumors using photographs that are misleading (like a picture of Hu Jia lying on a hospital bed, passed off as a sex photo) or even intentionally doctored. These reports sensationalize the experience of a victim of cruel political oppression, making his role even more complicated and multifaceted.
The intermittent periods of house arrest and the constant 24-hour surveillance to which Hu Jia has been subjected over the past ten years are old news by now. In China, where scandals abound and where human rights abuses are so common that no single incident can be labeled “most brutal,” public indignation has been on the wane at the same time that the sources of public indignation are becoming more numerous. As dozens upon dozens of activists are put in jail, they become mere statistics, and their names are less likely to stick in the public mind. And as more and more activists die, the media and public become desensitized to threats made against activists’ lives. Society falls into a state of numbness. Moral standards begin to slip.
Within the secret police, responsibility for the illegal handling of Hu Jia’s case is constantly shifted between different levels, and no one will take responsibility for the situation. Some play good cop, others play bad cop, in pursuit of the common goal of “maintaining stability.” My hypothesis, which I’ve seen borne out, is that the “stability maintenance” apparatus, from the central government all the way down to neighborhood police stations -- is mutating: it has become a very profitable new industry. As the people at the top give free rein to their subordinates to “maintain stability” using whatever means necessary, they gradually lose control over the concrete ways in which their power is exercised. Back when ideological concerns were paramount in China, policemen felt that they were working for the good of the nation; but under the current system, pursuing “social stability” has become an empty goal and the secret policemen who perpetrate political persecution have lost the sense of the meaning of their work. Their brutality and that of their underlings may stem from any number of causes: failure to understand the orders issued by their superiors, personal enmity, or fear of losing their jobs. But the consequences are harmful to everybody: increasingly, enforcers of government policy act in ways that benefit neither the authorities nor society. Meanwhile, the victims of “stability maintenance” become more and more vulnerable.
At this point I’m no longer going to concern myself with the debate about whether the rumors about illicit affairs surrounding Hu Jia were propagated by the secret police. When Hu Jia reported the cell phone numbers of the people who threatened him, the police didn’t lift a finger to protect him and his family in the face of death threats, and they turned a blind eye to the various forms of violent harassment inflicted on his loved ones. If another act of violence is perpetrated against them, will the government just fold its arms and look on?
I’m also not going to shout about whether sensationalist stories about Hu Jia’s sex life bear the mark of the CCP. It should be enough to point out that this brand of journalism does nothing to discourage violent harassment; that it reduces serious political dissent, and the intolerable, inhumane regime of detention, imprisonment, social isolation, and threats against family members that is used to suppress the dissenters, into titillating word games; that it debases and commercializes political dissent, and in an insidious fashion turns the public and even the dissenters themselves into accomplices to political repression.
After Hu Jia was arrested in 2007, the head of the Beijing branch of the guobao told us: “After consulting a doctor, we’ve concluded that you may open the windows to let in fresh air and sunshine. There’s no need to go downstairs.” With these words, he deprived me and my two-month-old daughter of the basic right to leave our apartment and go for a walk. This formed the basis of many nightmares I had about my daughter afterward.
Again and again, I dream that we’re in our apartment in Bobo Freedom City, under house arrest, and when I finally get to open the front door and go downstairs, policemen trample over me and enter the apartment. My daughter disappears, and I’m unable to find her.
Over the past two years, people online have gone so far as to post messages, using the names of family members, making claims of incest and sexual harassment of my daughter. Strangers have sent paper garlands, a paper iPhone, a paper coffin, and even a message, delivered into the hands of Hu Jia, that our daughter would be “the first to die.” Now my nightmares have taken a new turn.
I dream that I’m standing outside under the blazing sun, cars racing past me, and I’m looking for my daughter but I can’t find her anywhere. I panic, cry out for her, run around like a madwoman -- but she’s gone. In my dream, I run around hysterically until I open my eyes.
When I became pregnant in 2007, even though I was under house arrest and constant surveillance I thought that I was about to attain a kind of happy domesticity. When Hu Jia was released from prison in 2011, our lives became another kind of jail, our movements hampered at every turn. But even then I believed that I could live a free life inside myself. Now I have a more rational view. Deep inside, I understand that the dangers are drawing in close around us. When Hu Jia turned 40 on July 25 last year, he took our daughter to Shenzhen to celebrate with Teng Biao and some other friends. Twenty people were arrested by local state security. I was visiting Chicago at the time, and lost contact with my daughter for several hours. I was terrified.
As soon as I got back from Chicago I drew up a will, laying out arrangements so that if some awful event -- a car crash, another arrest, or worse -- deprived us of the ability to care for our daughter, she could still have a relatively happy childhood. I urged our friends and relatives not to publish pictures or information about her whereabouts on social media. I begged our acquaintances in the media never again to reveal her full name. I keep on writing, and I’m seeing a trauma therapist. I do my best to make my daughter understand that whatever happens she will always have her parents’ love -- it’s not that we don’t love her, it’s that we don’t have any other choice.
I know what risks I must face and what price I must pay for standing up and speaking out. And I understand, deeply, why so many people who have endured terrible trauma and persecution choose to remain silent.
At times, in the course of writing this essay, I became furious; at other times I laughed out loud. I laughed at the outrageousness, the stupidity, and the blindness of what people do. I also smiled, thinking of the resourcefulness and humor of people online, both friends and strangers, who have expressed their support -- and for once depression and anxiety didn’t belabor my writing, and the words just flowed out. Reflecting on the past helps me build a better life for myself, helps me create an identity that’s not dominated by political persecution, public expectations, and the limitations of being an activist.
I look forward to the day when I don’t have to endure daily threats and harassment, when I can just read, think, write, and enjoy life with my daughter and our friends. I know that then my life will seem richer for the appalling abuse that I’ve been forced to endure, and my writing and research will be the sharper for it. I won’t need to continue avoiding my personal experiences; they’ll prove a precious resource, one that grows more valuable by the year.
This article was first published on ChinaFile, an online magazine from Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations.