The “favourite”, heading into Friday’s announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize, could not have been more different from the eventual — and unexpected — winner.
Unknown to even most of his own countrymen, and far away from the international spotlight, he is currently languishing in jail in a far corner of Beijing, serving a three and a half year prison term for “subverting State power”.
Human rights activist Hu Jia was the bookmakers’ favourite for the Nobel Peace Prize this year, nominated for the second-year running for his efforts to raise AIDS awareness and campaign for environmental issues in China.
The little-known Mr. Hu has in recent years become the international face of the country’s civil rights movement a small group of activists, scholars and lawyers who campaign for greater political freedoms here, and often face intimidation from the authorities.
In December, Mr. Hu (35) was awarded the European Parliament’s prestigious Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to “acknowledge the daily struggle for freedom of all Chinese human rights defenders”.
Beijing then strongly criticised the award as “interference” in China’s internal affairs. Many here were bracing for a similar response on Friday as Mr. Hu was widely expected to win.
Mr. Hu has been a controversial figure for China’s authorities. He has been an outspoken critic of the ruling Communist Party’s human rights record, and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison last March for “inciting to subvert State power”. This followed a series of essays he wrote criticising the Communist Party’s human rights policies. In one essay, Mr. Hu detailed the cases of two protesters who had been tortured for campaigning against the illegal seizures of their land.
The essays came at a sensitive time, in the lead up to last year’s Olympic Games. Mr. Hu was also an outspoken critic of the Games, accusing the Chinese government of not fulfilling its commitment to improving human rights. “Mr. Hu spread malicious rumours, and committed libel in an attempt to subvert the states political power and socialist system,” a court verdict said when sentencing him last April.
He has also campaigned for non-political causes in China. He first started out working on environmental issues, starting a wildlife conservation movement to help protect the endangered Tibetan Antelope in Qinghai province in the country’s far west. He also worked to raise AIDS awareness in China, fighting social taboos.
Zeng Jinyan, his wife, said in April his health was deteriorating in prison, and has accused authorities of effectively keeping her in house arrest.
Mr. Hu has also controversially called for a public inquiry into the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, an event which saw the deaths of hundreds of students. Discussing the event is still taboo in China today.
This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the student movement, another reason why many expected the Nobel committee to recognise Mr. Hu. Even history seemed to support his case. In 1989, the Nobel Committee, which often makes strong political statements in its decisions, awarded the prize to the 14th Dalai Lama.