Dissidents released just before Chinese premier visits the UK

JISHOU, CHINA — What a coincidence. Days before Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited British Prime Minister David Cameron to sign trade deals worth $2.2 billion, Chinese officials released two prominent dissidents, Ai WeiWei and Hu Jia.

Cameron, pro forma, gave some lip service to preserving human rights as he signed the trade agreements worth £1.4 billion, while Wen gave the usual Chinese reply — “MYOB” — though somewhat more diplomatically than my shorter version.

Last week, Ai, an internationally known artist, was finally released on bail after being picked up in a Hong Kong airport three months ago and kept virtually incognito. He was charged officially with tax evasion, but he also has been a vocal political gadfly in China. Ai has been publicizing the names of students who died when their “tofu-construction” schools collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

The state news agency reported Ai, 54, was released because he had confessed to his crimes and because he was in poor health. Prior to his arrest, Ai, his family and his associates denied any tax evasion.

Hu, 37, was also released at the end of his a three-and-a-half-year prison sentence on Sunday, which apparently was his official release date. He had been put away for “inciting subversion” for his sharp criticism of the government’s human rights record preceding the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

In an open letter published in 2007, Hu wrote:

The Olympics will be held in a country where there are no elections, no freedom of religion… where torture and discrimination are supported by a sophisticated system of secret police.

Hu and his wife documented their lives under police surveillance in a video that went viral later that year. He was tried and imprisoned in 2008.

Both men are under a form of house arrest. Hu’s house is under constant surveillance, and he cannot talk to the media, publish anything, or join any organization. He and his wife will also find it hard to find employment, and could even be evicted from their house. Meanwhile, Ai has been told he cannot leave Beijing, though he has studios in Shanghai.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiabo remains in the slammer, serving out an 11-year sentence for subversion. Liu is a co-author of Charter 08, a manifesto calling for broader civil rights in China, as guaranteed in the Chinese constitution.

The two men are just the tip of the iceberg. Reportedly, authorities have jailed two dozen political dissidents throughout China in the last year.

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