Opinion: Chinese Dissident Deserves EU Human Rights Award | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 24.10.2008
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Opinion: Chinese Dissident Deserves EU Human Rights Award

In light of the global financial crisis, Beijing seems to recognize the important of working together. But it can't overlook the fact that human rights are universal, says DW's Matthias von Hein.


The European Parliament wasn't intimidated by the threats of the Chinese leadership. It awarded the Sakharov Prize to a person who is more than deserving of this award for "freedom of expression" for his gentle, yet relentless resistance. Imprisonment, house arrest -- nothing could intimidate 35-year-old Hu Jia.

In November 2007, Hu Jia participated via Internet in a European Parliamentary hearing even as guards waited in front of his door and his telephone was tapped. He didn't spare any criticism for the human rights violations in China and spoke of a human rights catastrophe in the Olympic host country.

Mock trial for Hu

A month later, when most foreign journalists were on Christmas vacation, Hu Jia was arrested. His trial was organized in April at record speed.

Matthias von Hein

Matthias von Hein

The trial itself was wrapped up extremely quickly: The Chinese judges needed just one day to sentence him to three-and-a-half years in prison for "subversion." The result of this mock trial was enough for the Chinese foreign ministry to condemn Hu Jia as a criminal and castigate his winning the award as interference in China's interior affairs.

Awarding Hu Jia the Sakharov Prize is just as right as the timing is unfavorable. It coincides with German Chancellor Angela Merkel's efforts in Beijing to normalize German-Chinese relations after she received the Dalai Lama over a year ago. And the prize came one day before the heads of over 40 states discuss strategies for overcoming the financial crisis at the Asia-Europe summit (ASEM).

China feels effects of crisis

But with its $1.9-trillion (1.49 trillion euros) currency reserve, China doesn't only have good leverage. Despite its insular banking system, it's been hit hard by the crisis. The Chinese stock index has lost 65 percent of its value. Exports are nose-diving. Laid-off workers in southern China are already picketing in front of walled-up toy factories.

Beijing also seems to have learned from the crisis just how dependent we all are on one another. That's the only explanation for the surprisingly soft tone the foreign ministry spokesman took after his criticism of the European Parliament. He said awarding Hu Jia the Sakharov Prize would not have an impact on the ASEM summit.

Maybe the Chinese government has realized that European parliaments can't be compared to the National People's Congress. As true representatives of the people, they have a life of their own -- independent of the government. In any case, Beijing has seldom been so calm in the face of criticism from abroad.

Perhaps it's naive, but it would be nice if, after the insight that joint action is necessary in the world of finance, it also became clear that human rights are universal, even in this globalized world. And that people like Hu Jia don't belong in prison, but should be celebrated as heroes.

Matthias von Hein is the head of DW-RADIO's Chinese service. (kjb)

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