The re-emergence of two of China’s most prominent dissidents does not signal any relaxation of the government’s wider clampdown on dissent, human rights groups say.
The release on bail of detained artist Ai Weiwei, who helped design Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Olympics stadium, was to be followed Sunday by the release of activist Hu Jia following his three-and-a-half year jail term for “subversion.”
After nearly three months’ detention, Ai’s release Wednesday “is an important reminder that pressure works,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, of the international campaign to free the activist artist. “But there is no indication that the government is taking a softer line towards criticism.”
At least 130 Chinese citizens have been detained or disappeared since February, when pro-democracy protests in the Arab world sparked fears in Beijing that the unrest might reach China, said Catherine Baber, deputy director, Asia Pacific, for Amnesty International. Next week, Amnesty International will release a report detailing China’s intensified crackdown on human rights lawyers. Authorities have increased their use of enforced disappearances and detentions without charge or access to lawyers, Baber said.
Ai , 54, used to rank among China’s most outspoken figures, documenting his every move with often irreverent blog posts and Twitter updates. The conditions of his release forbid any media interviews, he said.
Beijing police said Ai had been released “because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes,” the official Xinhua News Agency said.
“Ai is physically free but clearly muzzled, and that’s not anyone’s idea of freedom,” Baber said, noting that three of Ai’s associates remain secretly detained without charges.
“Given the track record of the release of prominent activists, there is good reason to fear Hu Jia will be transferred to house arrest,” said Baber of the 37-year-old activist set to be released Sunday.
The current crackdown, and frequent use of extra-judicial measures to intimidate and silence dissidents, “flies in the face of the Chinese government’s insistence that they are pursuing the rule of law, and are guided by China’s own legal procedures,” she said.
A worrying trend is increased targeting of dissidents’ family members, said Baber. Hu Jia’s wife, blogger and activist Zeng Jinyan, already has several years’ experience of such harassment, including being forced to move often. Zeng has returned to Beijing in the hope of greeting her husband Sunday.
“Hu Jia will be deprived of his political rights for one year (as part of his sentence), so in that one year he will not be able to meet with the media, please forgive me,” Zeng wrote on Twitter. “During this time, he must treat his cirrhosis and take care of his parents and child.”
Beijing’s strong-arm tactics have proved effective in forcing recent detainees, often previously outspoken, to be more cautious in public statements on their release.
“I hope Hu Jia’s basic rights can be guaranteed,” said lawyer Jiang Tianyong, who worked on his case. “Any individual and any organization must obey Chinese law and protect citizens’ basic rights.” Jiang was detained for two months, without charge, earlier this year.
“Everyone must do their best, but, in the current situation, the reality is not as bright as we hope,” Jiang said.