Hu Jia is one of China’s best-known political activists. He participated in the 1989 Tiananmen protests as a fifteen-year-old, studied economics, and then worked for environmental and public health non-governmental organizations. A practicing Buddhist, Hu spent three and a half years in prison between 2008 and 2011 for “inciting subversion of state power” and currently is under house arrest for having launched a commemoration of the June Fourth massacre in January. But on his way back from a rare unsupervised hospital visit, I met up with him for a talk about his work and the twenty-fifth anniversary of the protest movement in Tiananmen Square and around the country.
Ian Johnson: Did you protest every day during the spring of 1989?
Hu Jia: No. I was still in junior high and we had tests. We had free time to prepare for exams and during those days I went every day. On average I went once every three days. The buses would take you for free if you said you were going to Tiananmen to protest. China really was like a Communist country back then. Everyone was really friendly and really supportive of the students. They felt that the students’ requests were reasonable and justifiable. That time, in 1989, Beijing was adorable, it was lovely. [Note: italicized words in Hu Jia’s responses were said in English in the original Chinese interview.]
Your parents had seen how the Party reacts to these sorts of things. Did they support you?
They didn’t oppose me. My father was a manager at a state construction company. The next year the Asian Games were to be held in Beijing. My father was responsible for some projects. He had his people buy soda pop, a big truck of it, and send it to Tiananmen. He was a manager so he could do that sort of thing.
What happened to you personally on the night of June 3?
If my father hadn’t held me back that night at the door, I would have gone. He blocked the door and pushed me back. He shouted at me: “Go back! Go back! Go back!” You see, he was politically aware. He saw internal documents. He knew that the “weather was going to change.” I was determined to go and maybe if I had really insisted, maybe I could have run past him. Why didn’t I?
I think it’s because I had spent most of my young years with my father. Growing up, my father had been my father and my mother. There was no kindergarten and my father carried me to work every day. As a Rightist [victims of Mao persecuted from the 1950s to the 1970s] he was forced to do the most dangerous work. In Xiangtan, Hunan, when they were building steel mills, they had sixty-meter chimneys he had to climb up. He carried me up when he went up. If he’d have fallen, the two of us would have died. We suffered a lot together. I didn’t have toys. My father took a piece of wood and carved a small wooden horse and a small car.
Because of this feeling, when he was so forceful in pushing me back, physically pushing me to get back—my father had never been like that to me—so I gave in and didn’t go.
The next day, I was out early. It was bright early and I bicycled from our home in the eastern suburbs. There were tanks coming from the east. It was at Shilipo, about three kilometers east of Hujialou, I saw burned-out tanks. I went to a bus station, where buses from lines 112 and 115 terminated. The drivers and conductors helped us turn the buses around to block the road. Coming from the east were soldiers from the Shenyang Military District.
We talked to the soldiers and told them that the soldiers in the city had killed people and did they want to really join that? We talked to one officer and he had his head in his hands. He didn’t know what to do. He took off his uniform and left. Then another officer ordered soldiers to pull out their automatic rifles and start shooting. I took off running and thought I’d die. But I realized later they were aiming in the air. I’d never been so terrified in my life. My heart was beating like the shots out of the gun. Da-da-da-da-da-da.
We later stopped some other military vehicles and talked to the drivers and got them to stop. But I saw other things. People used bicycle chain locks and bludgeoned the soldiers—killed them. It was horrible. It was wrong.
How did you get politicized?
We have to start in 1957. My father was a student at Tsinghua University, in his third year. My mother was in Tianjin’s Nankai University, in her second year. That summer, they were both labeled rightists [During the Anti-Rightist Movement of 1957-1958, an estimated 550,000 people, mostly educated people, were labeled “rightists” and persecuted for two decades for opposing the government.]
What did your parents say to get themselves labeled rightists?
My father is from Anhui province, a center of rice production. It’s a very plentiful area but in Anhui, that year, there was a famine and people starved to death. My grandfather wrote my father and said “I’m really hungry. There’s nothing to eat at home.” My father repeated this in school. Tsinghua University’s party committee said, No way, impossible. You are spreading rumors, you are insulting socialism. You are insulting this great country. My father insisted and said, “No, there is a famine and people are starving to death. My father is starving to death.”
I don’t know what my mother said. She refuses to tell me. It’s too painful for her. They met in 1966. No one could marry a rightist so when they realized they were both rightists they married immediately. My father asked for my mother’s hand the second day. There was no ceremony. They couldn’t even live together. My father went to Gansu, then Hunan. My mother went to Hebei. They went to really poor, backward areas to work.
If my parents had admitted their error and said what they said was wrong—even though it was right—but if they’d said “I admit my crime, and I’m very sorry, I shouldn’t have said that,” their situation would have been better than today. But they didn’t. They stuck to what they’d said. They passed this character to me.
Were your parents supporters of Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s? Rightists were rehabilitated and they could return to Beijing and live together. He ended Maoism.
No. They supported Hu Yaobang [the former party secretary under Deng who was ousted by hardliners in 1987 and whose death in 1989 triggered the Tiananmen protest]. It was Hu Yaobang who called for the rightists to be rehabilitated. But the Communists never rehabilitated the rightists. They never said the Anti-Rightist Movement was wrong. They just said the expansion [of anti-rightist persecutions] from a few people to many people was wrong. But they never said Mao was wrong for persecuting rightists. That’s the Communist party: never admitting errors.
But the Eighties were a period of openness, right? How was it for you?
Yes, especially before Hu Yaobang was forced out. There was a feeling of openness, of “letting a hundred flowers bloom” and a “hundred schools of thought contend.” They tried a few reforms, even political reforms. My mother loved to read and brought home books all the time. I read a lot, especially psychology. I think I was fortunate that my parents were old rightists. They had a circle of friends, old rightists from Tsinghua. They didn’t believe in the CCP. They had preserved their ability to think for themselves. They were really smart people too. They came to our home and talked. Their views weren’t what you read in the official media. I learned a lot listening to them.
How did you hear about Hu’s death?
When he died on April 15, 1989, we knew about it quickly. Our whole family was sad. So even though I was young, I went to Tiananmen to express myself. It was like 1976 after the death of Zhou Enlai [the former premier, who was considered a moderate compared to Mao]. I took a pen and write a poem for him on the steps of the martyrs’ monument. I wrote it right on the monument. People copied the poems and passed them around.
I participated in the big April 27 protests [which were called to protest a government newspaper editorial the day before that had defined the student-led protests as an anti-party revolt]. We opposed official corruption. We asked them to sell their Mercedes-Benzes to pay off state debts. The government had bought a lot of Mercedes for officials but we wanted them to be sold. And we demanded that officials’ finances be made public. We sang the Internationale. We really didn’t know what that meant. It meant communism but we didn’t know. When we sang it my blood rose and we felt we had so much energy.
What’s your overall view of the 1989 protests? Some people say that if the students had retreated from Tiananmen earlier, they could have avoided bloodshed.
The only person who doesn’t make errors is God. Do you know how old [student leader] Wang Dan was then? He was nineteen. Even Liu Xiaobo, he was just around thirty. We didn’t have any experience but we had a sense of responsibility. We wanted democracy, we wanted an end of corruption. We wanted dialogue.
But the students did make errors. Some people threw paint on the picture of Chairman Mao and the students turned them in. That was wrong. As long as Mao’s picture is on Tiananmen, China will never have democracy. So many of China’s problems are due to Mao. Having his corpse in Tiananmen Square, it’s an evil influence. He was a cruel emperor. If he’s still there, in the heart of China, I don’t think China can ever change. China will be an evil dragon. The students did regret that. Wang Dan said he was very sorry they did that, turning in those people. They have been released but they were destroyed in prison.
Does your Buddhism stem from your experiences in 1989?
I started practicing on June 4. So many people were killed that day and Buddhism has a principle of not killing people. But I formally became a disciple in 1997 when I went to Tibet and came back. So I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t eat meat. And there are principles you have to follow like not stealing, not lying.
What do you think of the idea that China is going through a spiritual crisis?
After being in power for sixty-five years, the worst thing the CCP has done is create a sense of spiritual confusion. We have no belief or faith. Instead we have brutal competition and treating people brutally. If someone falls, no one goes to help them. People have to consider if they’ll be accused by the old person of having caused the accident. This happens all the time, so no one goes to help people.
That’s what China is like now. In China’s civil service, no one is any good. Don’t think Wang Qishan [a senior leader charged with fighting corruption] is good. His family has a lot of money too. They’re not really attacking corruption now. It’s not hunting tigers, it’s just tigers eating tigers. This tiger might be bigger than that tiger so he eats it. It’s just a battle among them. Xi Jinping is even bigger. He’s a red dragon. He’s head of state, head of the party, head of the military commission: he’s a nine-headed bird.
I’ve heard people argue that the Tiananmen protests failed because China wasn’t ready spiritually—that it has to solve its spiritual crisis before it can tackle its political one.
Who can say who’s ready? Was Myanmar ready to throw out the military? Was Egypt ready? Was Tunis?
Some would say those aren’t successful revolutions.
I know, but you have to go through this process. One day China will too. It’s not like one day we’re going to wake up and be ready to be democratic. You don’t just achieve it at some point without struggle. Look at the US. Blacks only got equal rights in the 1960s. Taiwan is going through the Sunflower Movement. It’s part of perfecting democracy. Democracy continues to improve itself. It’s not some level you reach and it’s over. If China doesn’t try, it could end up like Russia, with oligarchs and KGB agents running the country.
Failure is acceptable. It’s part of the process. Each time you fail, you leave something positive for the next generation to build upon. You look at June 4, it’s the same. One day the government will revise the verdict. What they did was illegal and they know it. They know it too well.
But in the meantime, the government continues to arrest activists like you.
In 1957 my parents were labeled rightists. In 2007, exactly fifty years later, I was declared a counter-revolutionary. Of course they don’t have this term anymore. Formally I was charged with “inciting subversion of state power,” but it’s basically the same. It’s for speaking out. The police told me, “your family has a 反骨.” What does that mean? It’s a Chinese idea. It means in the back of your head is a bone that makes you a contrarian. People with this bone in their head will always oppose things, like the Communist Party.
When I got out of prison I tried to form a human rights NGO but everyone in it was arrested. I have a group, but it’s not formally organized. It’s a network. We started something called Citizens Dining Together. What is it? It’s a political assembly. We start by eating and have a good time. But then the plates are taken away and we have a formal meeting. We follow Roberts Rules of Order and discuss very practical issues, such as when China democratizes, can we accept Tibetan independence? So this is a political assembly. We’ve had meetings of thirty to forty people, or at people’s homes with meetings of twenty to thirty.
Do you feel isolated? Most people don’t have the same thoughts as you. They’re not as idealistic. They want to get by.
Sometimes I feel completely hopeless. If this country really wants to change, well, if two million people went out onto the streets of Beijing, the CCP would start to shake. If five million went out, just in Beijing, they would fall. Right now we’re lacking a desire to get on the street, to feel that this society is their responsibility. But look around the country, there are just a few hundred people who are active. Like in Kunming, Maoming, they went out to protest. But it was only against a PX plant for a few days. They just care about their own issue, but not China’s future.
I wish that, like in Tunis, if a person killed himself it would start the uprising. I wish in China something like that would occur. But look, 139 Tibetans have killed themselves, self-immolations, and Han Chinese think it isn’t their problem. The CCP says the Tibetans are separatists so people think, “Oh, well, let them kill themselves then.”
You have to say that a lot of the CCP’s methods are successful. They use the propaganda ministry to obfuscate this country’s true situation. They brainwash people, and the legal system is in their hands. If you criticize them, there are so many ways to deal with you: jail camps, labor camps, detention camps, prison camps, black prison camps, mental asylum camps. They have so many ways. Each method can make you disappear for a few years. And they can even have you die in prison like Cao Shunli. She was someone who was simply asking to participate in the United Nation’s human rights review process. Someone who foreign countries were watching out for, but she died. So think about that. They dare to do anything. If they hate you, if they think you are a problem you can disappear.
Or get put under house arrest.
I’ve been under house arrest since February 24. Our home is in a subdivision called Freedom City. That subdivision has a few dozen buildings. Every two buildings have a yard between them. At the entrance to each yard is a small building. They have people living there in shifts. Twelve hours each. At night there’s at least two people. In the daytime, sometimes seven or eight. They are Beijing Municipal Domestic Security Corps. Also the Tongzhou Branch of the Beijing Municipal Security Detachment. That’s the lower-level unit. Since July 2, 2004, twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, they’re always there.
The moment I come out they’ll jump out and one person in charge will ask me what I want to do. If I say I want to shop, they approve it. If I walk, they walk with me. If I ride my bike, they take an electric scooter. If I drive, they usually discourage me. They are afraid I’ll evade them, but if I insist they might approve it.
How did you manage to avoid them today?
Let me tell you what my life was like today. Today I went to the hospital. They know that I have hepatitis. They know that the hospitals that handle this are infectious disease wards. Therefore they aren’t so interested in accompanying me there. They’re usually nervous and wear a mask. I told them I’m going to get a checkup and that my mother is going too. I told them that my family doesn’t want them there. So there was this bit of time now when I was away from home. In a few minutes I’ll go home.
Do you live with your parents?
No. I don’t so as to spare them this. I lived with them before July 2, 2004. My home has police cars all around it and I often got into fights with the police. It was too much for my parents. My mother would have nightmares every night. She’d wake up screaming. My father was also worried and suffered too.
And your family is in Hong Kong.
My wife the documentary film maker and activist Zeng Jinyan [who rose to fame in 2006 for blogging about Hu Jia’s detentions] can’t live at home. She’s been traumatized. She doesn’t want to go back and live in our home because of everything she suffered. She moved to Hong Kong with our daughter. Jinyan is a Ph.D. research student and it’s very hard for her to be there raising a child alone, but it’s better for them to be there.
I used to take our daughter to kindergarten every day and I noticed that the CCP flag was hanging. Not the national flag, but the party flag. It was the ninetieth anniversary of founding the party and so even a kindergarten hung the flag. And the children had to sing children’s hearts face the party. They taught them that the party’s red flag is color with the blood of martyrs. This is really an evil influence on children. It was like when I was growing up. We call this “drinking the wolf’s milk.” You became as barbaric as them.
When did you start commemorating June 4?
On the first anniversary. I went home and put on father’s black suit and went to the square. The school authorities knew about it and were really worried. I always try to go and just walk around the square. In 2004 I took flowers. Since then, for every June 4 I’ve been in jail, a black jail, or under house arrest.
When do the detentions usually start?
It’s usually around May 28 or so until June 8. It’s been like that every year. Since coming out of prison three years ago, it feels like it’s earlier and earlier for me. This year it started in February. The police told me, “You absolutely won’t get near Tiananmen Square!” I guess the worst is that I’ll be arrested and sentenced for twelve years. They threatened me with this. Since coming out I’ve published a lot—just the same as when I was sentenced to three years. That was for “inciting” subversion. That meant I just sat in front of a computer and wrote something. But next could be “organizing” subversion of state power. That means I’ve organized a group that is counter-revolutionary. It means you are a man of action.