BEIJING—Qianci may well be the youngest political prisoner in the world. The 3-month-old girl and her 24-year-old mother are surrounded 24 hours a day, seven days a week by some two dozen members of China's state security apparatus. Since December 27, they have not been permitted to leave their small apartment in eastern Beijing, and visitors are brusquely turned away by the plainclothes police who guard the building. Connections to the outside world—mobile phones and the Internet—have been cut off.
The young mother and daughter hardly seem like a threat to the state. Their offense? Qianci and Zeng Jinyan are daughter and wife of Hu Jia, a leading activist on behalf of dissidents, human-rights lawyers, and abused farmers. He was dragged from his home by police on December 27 and subsequently charged with "inciting subversion of state power." His real crime, say analysts, is making Beijing lose face by reporting human-rights abuses in the run-up to the 2008 Summer Olympics, which will be held in August. "These things exceeded what the government was willing to accept," says Teng Biao, one of Hu's legal advisers.
The Beijing games are being presented as a great coming-out party for China, a chance to showcase its remarkable economic strides and to claim its place as a 21st-century world power. International attention will be focused on China, and many human-rights activists here and abroad hoped that China's eagerness to shine in the spotlight would prompt its Communist Party leaders to ease repression and provide a modest opening for political liberalization. On this, they had some reason for optimism. In 2001, in order to win the right to host the games, Liu Jingmin, a Beijing Olympics official, promised that the games would be "an opportunity to foster democracy, improve human rights, and integrate China with the rest of the world."
Ironically, just the opposite is happening, at least on human rights. That situation is worsening as the authorities seek to ensure no one will spoil the party's coming out. Hu provides a case in point. The bespectacled activist is something of a one-man human-rights band, maintaining close contacts with dissidents and their families, tirelessly gathering information, and sending it out on the Web for the world to see. "The action taken against Hu Jia cannot escape being connected to the Olympics," says the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation, which has successfully intervened with the Chinese government on behalf of dissidents.
Image building. Teng, who is professor of law at the China University of Political Science and Law, says Beijing's efforts to rein in criticism comes as no surprise. "China wants to show its political strength to the world, not improve the human rights or the political situation," he says. Chine Chan, with Amnesty International in Hong Kong, says China's domestic human-rights record "is an obstacle to its international-image building."
China's leaders see the Olympic Games as an opportunity to dazzle the world and to demonstrate that they have a mandate to continue to rule China. Beijing's harshest critics, though, draw comparisons to the 1936 Olympics, when the Nazis used the athletic event as a showcase for a new Germany and to mark its return to the world community following its isolation after its defeat in World War I.
Many Chinese thought that with the world's eyes turned to China for this year's Olympic Games, whose slogan is "One World, One Dream," they had a rare chance to pressure the government. Disgruntled Chinese—dissidents, farmers, factory workers, the displaced—saw a moment when authorities might hesitate to use their usual practices to silence them. They were wrong. A spate of detentions and arrests related to the Olympics over the past two years has been met with near silence from foreign countries.
Hu Jia is one of those who paid a price for miscalculating. Charged with subverting state security, which allegedly involves state secrets, he has been denied access to his lawyers. Police have attempted to strong-arm Zeng into making statements about her husband, reportedly threatening to take their baby away from her during parts of the day. Zeng, a prominent blogger and human-rights activist in her own right, has refused to cooperate.