Hu Jia, shown during an a 2007 interview at his home in Beijing,
won the European Union's prestigious Sakharov Prize.
Hu Jia, 35, established an AIDS nonprofit and campaigned on
behalf of political prisoners. His winning of the award
represents a challenge to China's human rights record.
Reporting from Beijing -- In a move designed to shine a spotlight
on Beijing's poor human rights record, the European Union today
awarded a prestigious human rights award to an outspoken Chinese
activist currently languishing in a Chinese jail.
The awarding of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to
35-year-old Hu Jia represents a challenge to the Communist
regime's often heavy-handed approach to social control. It also
comes shortly after the Beijing Olympics, when China's pledge to
improve its human rights record fell short in some people's eyes.
In a bit of lobbying that ultimately failed and may even have
backfired, Beijing issued a warning to the European body
Wednesday against naming Hu. "If the European Parliament should
award this prize to Hu Jia, that would inevitably hurt the
Chinese people once again and bring serious damage to China-EU
relations," China's ambassador to the European Union, Song Zhe,
said in a letter.
Hu was sentenced in April for "incitement to subvert state
power," a broadly worded charge the regime often uses against
critics and dissidents. The activist has angered Beijing by
campaigning for political prisoners, spotlighting torture and
aiding victims of injustice, including those hurt by industrial
pollution, repressive medical policies and violation of civil
Hu was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison, a move some analysts
saw as part of a larger bid to intimidate other social activists
in advance of the August Olympics.
"This prize is very important, not just for him but for all in
China's emerging civil society," said Sara Davis, executive
director of New York-based Asia Catalyst, a human rights group.
"Hu Jia is someone the Chinese should be proud of, not ashamed
of. He's made enormous contributions."
When Hu Jia was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this
year, an honor that ultimately went to former Finnish President
Martti Ahtisaari, Beijing also warned the Nobel committee not to
make a "mistake."
Beijing has denied that outside pressure will alter its human
rights stance, arguing that stability and elevating hundreds of
millions of people from abject poverty is its definition of human
rights. "No matter what happens, China will never give up its
current policies," said Liu Wenzong, a standing director of the
China Society for Human Rights Studies.
But activists said China is much more concerned about its
international reputation than it says, and the global spotlight
will increase pressure for reform. "On the surface, China will
probably be aggravated with this choice, and [Chinese] pundits
will say this is not the way to change China," said Nicholas
Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher with Human Rights Watch.
"But the fact is, China is hugely concerned with its global
image. This might actually prompt the government to seriously
engage and mitigate its record."
Zeng Jinyan, Hu's wife, fellow human rights activist and tireless
fighter on his behalf, recently challenged the government over
her husband's declining health. He has hepatitis-related liver
cirrhosis linked to chronic hepatitis B infection.
Hu started to gain prominence in 2000 when he established "Loving
Source," an AIDS nonprofit. He has since resigned for the
organization's benefit, citing the government's displeasure with
He has campaigned for the release of political prisoners and was
detained in 2005 for participating in an anti-Japanese rally.
While under house arrest, he continued to blog and made a
documentary of their house-bound activities, further angering the
government. He also took part in a human rights conference via
In February 2006 he was detained for over a month, then placed
under house arrest for nearly a year. Last December, he was
detained again after working with peasants fighting the seizure
of their land.
Magnier is a Times staff writer.