Zeng Jinyan, a 29-year old Chinese human rights activist and professor of English who grew up in Beijing, has been under house arrest with her three-year old daughter since December 2007, owing to her commitment to social and political causes. She recorded herself video documents of her difficult situation. The dispiriting images make it clear how the Chinese government is trying to restrict the freedom of bloggers not only on the Internet, but also in real life, using violence. Jinyan recorded these pieces in the hope that her situation and her message, which is representative of similar fates in China, will also be seen outside her country. 

Her husband, the well-known civil rights activist and winner of the Sakharov Prize Hu Jia, was sentenced in 2008 to three and a half years in prison, and despite severe illness, was only released in June 2011, after serving the full prison sentence. The couple campaign together for the observance of human rights in China and the recognition of the casualties of Tiananmen. Using her Twitter account, which in spite of a ban she still manages to operate with the help of a proxy server, Zeng continues to fight ceaselessly for her demands – despite far-reaching consequences.

Jinyan and her husband met when they were both doing volunteer work on behalf of Aids sufferers in poverty-stricken rural China. Hu Jia, a qualified computer scientist, had become aware as part of his work on environmental issues of the Chinese government’s cover-up of a blood donation scandal, in which hundreds of poor peasants had been infected with Aids. Jinyan, 18 at the time, an English student and human rights activist, responded to an appeal by Hu Jia’s NGO, and had gone to Henan province to set up a home for Aids orphans in an abandoned temple. The authorities tried to sabotage the relief operation. For Jinyan, it was the first time she had directly encountered state repression. A few days after the couple’s wedding, Hu Jia vanished without trace. Jinyan reported Hu Jia missing to the police and the authorities, but her husband was not found. In her despair, she turned to the public with her blog. This is how she began to tell her harrowing story for the first time. After 41 days, she found her husband lying weak and emaciated on the doorstep. Jinyan took him to the hospital. The secret police had carried Hu Jia off to an unknown location and, despite his severe jaundice, denied him the medicine he desperately needed.

After his return home, Hu Jia was placed under house arrest, threatened with grave consequences for himself and Jinyan if he failed to follow the orders. Jinyan was no longer able to leave the house without being followed. Since that day, secret police officers have stood sentinel at the door of their home. Jinyan and Hu Jia have used a small camera to record the 200 days or more in which Hu Jia was incarcerated in their home prior to his arrest and imprisonment; the resulting film is a harrowing document of total control and the severance of all freedom of movement. The brave couple was nominated for the European Human Rights Prize for their unflagging commitment to social and political causes. When Jinyan then wanted to attend a human rights conference in Switzerland, she was prevented from leaving China and her passport was seized. Jinyan lost her government position as an English professor. But the couple refuses to be intimidated. At a European Parliament hearing on the human rights situation in China, Hu Jia appeared by video link directly from his house arrest, and spoke out against the Olympic Games in Beijing. It was his last public appearance. Several days later, the state security authorities led him from the house in handcuffs.

In April 2008, after a trial that lasted a mere three hours, Hu Jia was convicted of ‘incitement to subvert state power’. When the conviction was announced, Jinyan collapsed. As if he were a dangerous criminal, Hu Jia was taken to a maximum-security prison outside Beijing, at a location that is difficult to reach for protests by foreign activists. Jinyan was allowed to visit her husband in prison once a month, but she never knew in advance when she would be able to see Hu Jia. The sentencing of the gentle civil rights campaigner unleashed a storm of criticism from politicians and human rights groups world-wide. The President of the European Union demanded his immediate release. During her visit to Beijing, Condoleezza Rice also requested Hu Jia’s release. 

Since her husband was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Expression, Jinyan is now no longer permitted to receive visitors. Her telephone line and Internet connection are often blocked, but despite the interruptions she still manages time after time to get online and cross the ‘Great Firewall of China’, where all links with the outside world are rigorously monitored.

Since she was placed under house arrest, Jinyan’s only access to the outside world is the Internet. She knows that every word she writes in her online diary will be read by the Chinese Internet police. Jinyan’s blog, classified in China as a ‘danger to the state’, is repeatedly blocked. But each time, she finds a way to get around the blockade using alternative servers, and to make her voice heard from captivity. Jinyan explains that the Chinese authorities often do not completely block the Internet access of dissidents under house arrest, as they hope to glean from statements on the blogs important information about planned activities and other forbidden activities.

 The Chinese government controls domestic Internet access. Each day, more than 40,000 Internet police search for ‘subversive elements’, block entire websites, and remove discussion platforms and other instruments for expressing opinion. In an allusion to the Great Wall of China, the ‘Great Firewall’ controls Internet access and blocks sites such as Twitter and Facebook. And since mid-March 2012, the Chinese government – in readiness for the upcoming People’s Congress in October – has created a new legal basis for its pursuit of bloggers. This new law allows it – using vaguely defined political suspicions such as ‘endangering national security’ – to place people under house arrest at an unidentified address for up to six months. And these people can be denied all legal support.

An American journalist for Time Magazine, on the occasion of Zeng Jinyan’s selection as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, who have “shaped our world as heroes and pioneers”, wrote: “She is the online successor to the demonstrators who, undaunted by death, placed themselves in the path of the tanks during the Tiananmen uprising. By blogging about the real situation in China, she is sowing the seeds for a new – genuine – cultural revolution. She is Tiananmen 2.0”.

Jinyan still cannot step outside her front door without being followed by at least two officers. Every doctor’s visit for her daughter must first be approved. But the civil rights activist is resolutely determined to resume her activities in support of social causes once her house arrest has been lifted. At the risk of being locked up all over again.

Zeng on Twitter
Zeng`s Blog