HONG KONG—The European Union has honored jailed Chinese dissident Hu Jia with its top human rights prize, despite Chinese warnings that awarding him the honor would threaten Chinese-European relations.
“Hu Jia is one of the real defenders of human rights in the People’s Republic of China,’’ European Parliament President Hans-Gert Poettering said. “The European Parliament is sending out a signal of clear support to all those who support human rights in China.’’
The prize, valued at U.S. $64,000, was launched in 1988 in honor of Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov, who died the following year. Previous winners include former South African President Nelson Mandela, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the prize, the EU plans two days of special events culminating in the award to Hu on Dec. 17 in Strasbourg, France.
Before the announcement, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said awarding Hu, 35, the prize would constitute interference in China’s internal affairs.
“We all know what kind of person Hu Jia is. He is a criminal, convicted on the charge of inciting subversion of government," Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a news briefing in Beijing. “To issue an award to such a criminal is interference in China’s judicial sovereignty and totally against the initial purpose of this prize.”
Contacted by telephone in Beijing, Hu’s wife, Zeng Jinyan, said only, “I just learned of the prize. There are journalists calling me,” before the phone went dead.
I hope [prison] authorities will allow him to take medications."
Hu Jia's mother
Hu’s mother, also reached by phone, said her son seemed better following his transfer to a prison in Beijing from Tianjin two weeks ago. She was permitted to visit, along with Hu’s wife and baby daughter, on Oct. 22.
Because of a pre-existing liver ailment, she said, he is now exempted from prison labor requirements.
“Hu Jia doesn’t look tired as he doesn’t have to work in the new prison. My general impression is that the new prison is not as strict as the previous one in which he was always watched by four guards,” she said.
“I can tell that Hu Jia is now in good spirits. Additionally, the food is much better than before. Hu Jia was also allowed to hold his daughter during the visit. I don’t know the reason why they transferred Hu Jia from Tianjin to Beijing. I hope authorities will allow him to take medications,” she said.
Jailed for incitement
In April this year, Beijing No.1 Intermediate People’s Court sentenced Hu Jia to 3-1/2 years in jail for “incitement to subversion” after he wrote articles online critical of China’s hosting of the Olympics.
Hu, a well-known AIDS activist who also suffers from Hepatitis B, was detained Dec. 27 after spending months under virtual house arrest because of his civil rights lobbying on behalf of disenfranchised people affected by the Olympics.
His arrest came after he published a number of articles online calling for human rights, in a campaign that was linked to Beijing’s hosting of the Olympics this summer.
Zeng, an AIDS activist and blogger who won an award from Paris-based Reporters Without Borders alongside Hu Jia last year, has updated her blog sporadically from house arrest, despite a clampdown by national security police on her telephone and Internet access.
U.S., rights group welcome prize
The U.S. State Department welcomed the award and urged China to release Hu immediately.
"We look forward to the day when China will recognize the contributions of Chinese human rights activists, who work on some of the most difficult problems facing Chinese society," spokesman Gordon Duguid said in a statement. "No one should be imprisoned for expressing his or her views."
Washington hopes the award will "demonstrate to China's leaders the enormous esteem the international community holds for his important work as a human rights defender," he said.
Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch in Washington, praised the selection, saying it was a sign that the EU may take a more “vigorous” approach to human rights issues in China.
“Hu Jia represents a number of the different human rights challenges in China today—the freedom of expression, civil society, trying to create space to make positive change, speaking both domestically and internationally, to the press about China’s problems,” Richardson said.
“Choosing to…honor him, I think, is the EU’s way of saying that these are serious problems that the world needs to pay attention to, despite a logistically or technically successful Olympics,” she said.
Original reporting by Ding Xiao for RFA’s Mandarin service. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated by Jia Yuan. Additional reporting by Richard Finney. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han and Joshua Lipes.