How the Chinese Authorities Silenced Dissident Hu Jia

Much of the news about human-rights abuses in China emerged from the living room of Hu Jia.

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VIDEO: Click to view Hu Jia's video diary of his life under house arrest.

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BEIJING—Over the past few years, much of the news about human-rights abuses in China has emerged from the simple living room of Hu Jia, a boyish-looking activist who used several cellphones, a home phone, a small desktop computer, and a video camera as a conduit between victims of Chinese government abuse and the outside world.

It was Hu, for instance, who put out the word last fall when authorities barred the wife of a prominent imprisoned activist, the blind, self-trained lawyer Chen Guangcheng, from traveling to accept Asia's top humanitarian award on behalf of her husband. When officials claimed she lacked a valid passport and visa, Hu circulated scanned copies of her documents to show that the government was lying.

And when the daughter of lawyer-activist Gao Zhisheng sneaked past police to telephone Hu, he E-mailed the moving recording of their conversation around the world. "When the government put Gao Zhisheng under house arrest, they thought the story would go away, but it was Hu Jia who kept on the story and who told the world what was happening," says a journalist who knows Hu well.

Tech saavy. Hu's use of technology added to the credibility of his reports. "When he reported about the persecution of Gao's family after his detention, it was very hard to dispute that it was indeed Gao's 14-year-old daughter crying on the phone," says Eva Pils, assistant law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

His activities did not go unnoticed by the authorities, who placed plainclothes police outside his apartment and monitored his communications. A little after 1 a.m. on December 27, Hu finished a report on the family of a prominent dissident and hit the send button, dispatching the E-mail to subscribers in China and abroad. The message would be his last for a time. About 14 hours later, some 20 police broke into Hu's apartment on the outskirts of Beijing—in a complex that ironically is known as BOBO Freedom City—and took him away, along with his computers, mobile phones, and bank books. He has been charged with "incitement to subvert state power," a charge frequently used to silence dissenters.

Human-rights experts say that while Hu's detention temporarily slowed the flow of information on human-rights abuses, others are stepping in. "By shutting down people like Hu Jia, they are just creating 10 more people to fill his shoes," says Sara Davis, executive director of the human-rights group Asia Catalyst, "because the conditions have not changed."