BEIJING — Like many patriotic Chinese, Hu Jia broke into tears when Beijing lost out to Sydney, Australia, for the right to host the 2000 Olympic Games, and was elated a year later when the city captured this year's Summer Games. But the Olympic Games are proving anything but a boon for people such as Hu.
A Beijing court Thursday sentenced Hu, 34, a prominent activist, to a prison term of three and a half years for posting five essays on overseas Web sites and for speaking to foreign reporters.
"Hu Jia is a person with a strong sense of national pride," his wife, Zeng Jinyan, said bitterly outside their apartment complex as a phalanx of police officers kept an eye on her every move. Tearstains streaked her face.
The verdict against Hu is the latest sign that Chinese officials see the run-up to the Olympic Games as a dangerous period in which any outcry should be dealt with harshly to discourage further dissent, a U.S. rights campaigner said.
"They are afraid of encouraging other protesters, other acts of protest," said John T. Kamm, the executive director of the Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based advocacy group that seeks the release of political prisoners in China, which it thinks may number around 30,000.
Beijing's First Intermediate People's Court convicted Hu of "inciting subversion of state power," a catchall charge against enemies of the state. The official news agency Xinhua said Hu spread "malicious rumors and committed libel" and instigated people to overthrow China's socialist system.
His conviction drew an international outcry from some, who think that China put Hu in prison to silence him ahead of the Olympic Games he longed to witness.
The U.S. Embassy issued a statement condemning the "specious charge" against Hu, saying that his work "should be applauded, not suppressed." Amnesty International called it a "blatant perversion of justice," and Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said it was appalled. The European Union had warned China not to convict Hu.
Kamm, who's spent nearly two decades working to release political prisoners in China, said China made 742 arrests last year for endangering state security.
"The trend is very definitely up," he said, adding that detentions are mounting after unrest in Tibet. "I don't think I'm going too far out on a limb to say 2008 will be a bumper year."
Kamm said he'd spoken with a number of Chinese officials and "everybody's on the same page," which he cast as "hard line, no concessions, life-and-death struggle."
Kamm said China's image was taking a drubbing abroad because of how it was dealing with unrest among ethnic Tibetans, who rioted in Lhasa in mid-March, but that officials had garnered vast support from citizens at home, many of whom see the unrest as instigated from abroad.
"In their way of looking at it, if they are to make concessions, they will encourage more protests," Kamm said.
Another Chinese dissident, Yang Chunlin, 53, an activist laborer who launched a petition demanding "human rights, not the Olympics," received a five-year jail term in late March on inciting-subversion charges.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said authorities were conducting no particular crackdown in relation to the Aug. 8-24 games.
"China is a country with a rule of law. Everyone is equal before the law. We can't stop implementation of the law because of the Olympics," she said.
Hu became an activist on AIDS issues but broadened his focus in recent years to include democratic rights, environmental issues and freedom of religion. He demanded a halt last autumn to alleged police abuses in a "cleanup" of petitioners and activists in Beijing before the Olympics.
More than a dozen police officers in riot gear broke into his home Dec. 27 to arrest him. His 25-year-old wife and their 4-month-old daughter have been under virtual house arrest since then. When a reporter walked toward the entrance of their apartment wing Thursday, guards rolled out yellow tape that said, "Police line — Do not cross." Zeng later came out to the gate and spoke to foreign reporters, saying she feared that Hu wouldn't get treatment for his liver ailment while in prison.