What happens to Chinese activists when a US first lady comes to visit?

One prominent political critic is under police guard while Michelle Obama is in China. Other groups report no restrictions.

Alexander F. Yuan/AP
US first lady Michelle Obama looks on after she gave a speech at Stanford Center in the Peking University in Beijing, China, Saturday, March 22, 2014.

Curious crowds have gathered wherever Michelle Obama and her daughters have appeared in China. But prominent government critic Hu Jia has not been among them. He has been locked up at home, under police guard.

“I expect to be allowed out a day after Mrs. Obama leaves China,” Mr. Hu said in a telephone interview Monday. “The Chinese government just wants to kill any chance that I might make contact with her.”

The first lady's weeklong visit to China with her mother and two daughters has been deliberately planned both by her Chinese hosts and the US government as a non-political affair. She has focused, in her public comments, on the importance of education and international student exchanges.

But in China, everything is potentially political. And what matters to Hu is important because he is the best known political activist to have survived a recent crackdown on civil society advocates that has seen dozens of his colleagues jailed. 

Hu said policemen were stationed in his residential compound, at the entrance to his building, and on the stairs leading to his fourth-floor apartment. “I have not been allowed to go out at all since last Tuesday,” just before Obama’s party arrived in Beijing, Hu said. “The police told me it was because Michelle Obama was coming.” 

Hu appears to be the only opposition activist suffering in this fashion this week. Friends of his in the activist community said their movements have not been restricted during the first lady’s visit.

Hu, however, is accustomed to this sort of treatment. Whenever a senior US figure visits China, he said, he is kept under house arrest. It first happened to him nine years ago, when then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to town, he recalled. 

“I think the Chinese authorities are very concerned that the Americans might arrange a meeting with me without telling them,” he said.

Hu is a close friend of Liu Xia, a dissident under permanent house arrest and the wife of the jailed Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. Hu served a 42-month jail sentence for “inciting subversion” before being freed in June 2011. He first came to prominence as an environmental and AIDS activist, and later broadened his concerns to democratic rights.

Obama has broached political issues in a tangential way, taking a swipe at Chinese Internet censorship when she told students at Peking University over the weekend that “it’s so important for information and ideas to flow freely over the Internet and through the media.”

She also insisted that “when it comes to expressing yourself freely and worshipping as you choose and having open access to information… they are universal rights that are the birthright of every person on this planet.”

A Chinese version of her speech, released by Peking University, was published uncensored on the websites of the Peoples’ Daily, the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, and of the state-run Xinhua news agency. 

Where Obama and her daughters have appeared, she has attracted crowds of onlookers keen for a sight of the US first lady, but the media has moved on since giving her a warm welcome when she arrived last week. Her speech at Peking University attracted no official coverage or comment. 

The first lady's delegation flew Monday to Xi’an, a city in central China, where she, her mother, and her daughters visited one of China’s top tourist sites, the famed terra cotta warriors. Tomorrow they continue to the southwestern city of Chengdu, where Obama is due to address high school students on the importance of education before visiting the panda park outside the city on Wednesday. 

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