An Interview with Zeng Jinyan 曾金燕

Zeng Jinyan

Zeng Jinyan

The China Story Journal would like to thank Zeng Jinyan for sharing her insights on life in China today and the situation of rights activism. Zeng, born in 1983, is one of China’s leading human rights activists. She is also a social commentator and documentary film-maker. In 2006, she rose to fame for blogging about her husband Hu Jia, a prominent dissident, who was in police custody but whose whereabouts were unknown. She currently lives in Hong Kong where she is pursuing postgraduate research in gender and sexuality at the University of Hong Kong. The following is an edited version of the interview in Chinese for which a full transcript is available here. —The Editors


Question: A few months ago, you wrote on your blog: ‘First, I am a mother. Next, I am someone who does odd jobs to make ends meet. Then, I am a person who can’t help speaking out because I want my friends and family to be safe. When I am held under house arrest, put under surveillance and encounter threats, I feel compelled to write to dispel my loneliness and to put up some resistance. “Activist, dissident, writer”, these are just my modest sidelines.’ Do you consider your experience fairly unique? Or do you see your life as sharing things in common with other Chinese women and mothers? What would you like to say to women in and outside China?

Answer: I have always been independent. When I graduated from university in 2005, I worked in business, managed a small-sized company and co-founded an NGO to help families afflicted by HIV and AIDS. I also wrote articles, produced translations and did some reporting as a citizen journalist. In addition to AIDS activism, I have also been involved in environmental activism and independent film-making. While my views about civil society and the rights movement in China are mine and mine alone. What I share with other Chinese citizens is a deep love for this land of ours and a desire to make it a better place.

Most people know little about me other than the fact that I’m Hu Jia’s wife. This is how it is in China: a place where a totalitarian hierarchical system and a culture of gender inequality prevail. Even though the social status of women has greatly improved, men still dominate. People with a public profile are greatly valued. Those who do domestic work are considered too ordinary to warrant attention. My story is similar to the stories of many daughters, wives and mothers, especially those of wives and mothers.

In their everyday life, besides paid work, women are constantly working at home to satisfy the material, physical and emotional needs of their families. They bear most of the responsibility for maintaining the household. In my family, Hu Jia’s persecution by the police brought enormous difficulties not only for me but for Hu Jia’s aged mother. I was frequently put under house arrest and surveillance. I was unable to pursue job opportunities and so had no regular income. I ended up doing odd jobs but the income from that was not enough for my family’s needs. I am proud and I was determined to make it on my own, and so I did not rely on my parents, relatives or friends. I lived in a constant state of anxiety. The police were unrelenting in the pressure they placed on me. I could not live a normal life. My physical and mental health deteriorated. Meanwhile Hu Jia was constantly in and out of prison; his situation was precarious. He couldn’t even take care of himself, and he was mostly absent from family life. I felt that many people expected me to be a good wife and to devote myself to Hu Jia and his causes.

'Shame to insult a woman'.

‘Shame to insult a woman’. Snapshot from Prisoner in Freedom City.

At the time, I was unhappy about my circumstances. I was a real flesh-and-blood person. I didn’t want to live my life according to the labels society had chosen for me. I was young then, not even thirty, and I wanted to experience what I hadn’t experienced before. I wanted to travel and study, to see life in a rich variety of ways and to make myself culturally informed. I was pursuing my own career. I sat for the IELTS test in 2006 in preparation for studies abroad, but my pregnancy and Hu Jia’s perilous circumstances at the time led me to abandon any plans for further study. In 2011, when it had become virtually impossible for me to achieve my personal dream – my passport was confiscated in June 2007 and my family needed me in China – I sat for the IELTS test again. I wrote a research proposal and applied to the universities where I wished to study.

In an attempt to stop the police harassment, in the spring of 2012 I announced on Twitter that Hu Jia and I had separated. When Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest, I suggested that he seek temporary protection at a foreign embassy. My involvement in his case and its eventual resolution helped me to get my passport back. I obtained a travel permit to come to Hong Kong with my daughter for further study. This was a turning point for me and my relationship with Hu Jia. Since then, Hu Jia has started to cherish our family and has worked hard to support us. I too have realized that it is only by fully respecting his personality and his choices that we can help rather than hurt each other.

When I met with the state security police, I often teased them: ‘I should thank you for the persecution, otherwise how could I have grown so much so quickly? How could I have the perspective and tolerance that I have now?’ I have gained real courage and a spirit of adventure from my experience as a single mother living in political resistance. Meanwhile, the Buddhist spirit of compassion reminds me that I need to be flexible and understanding in relation to everyone’s situation, to avoid confronting the machinery of the autocratic state, and to do my best to be compassionate and forgiving, as long as I don’t go against the principles I hold dear.

Zeng Jinyan and a guard. Snapshot from

Zeng Jinyan and a guard. Snapshot from Prisoner in Freedom City.

I’m not sure how my experience might inspire other people in China or elsewhere; every family has its own problems. I just want to say to my women friends, especially to the partners of dissidents, that no matter what happens, please don’t cry alone and don’t endlessly sacrifice your own interests. Walk out the door and live your own life first. There are thousands of ways to maintain a family and a marriage. You can shape a family and a married life in ways that suit your situation. To those who are living in difficult circumstances and fighting for a better society, I’d also like to say that to change an autocratic society is a drawn-out process. We must first change ourselves, enrich our experience and be innovative in our work.

Q: In your post, you mentioned the importance of writing ‘to put up some resistance’. How did writing help ‘to dispel loneliness’ in the difficult situation you faced? Do you do other kinds of writing besides blog posts? Do you have a favourite author who serves as a source of inspiration?

A: In China, human rights violations happen almost every day. Even if there is some reporting of these violations, they are soon displaced by more recent news. So the victims of human rights violations have to document their own experience. If they don’t keep a record of what has happened to them, their recollection of the events is bound to grow vague over time and, eventually, people might even think that nothing has really happened.

A human rights activist must record the details of any incident and treat the account as the foundation for future work. In 2005, I took part in a comprehensive human rights training program in Montreal, Canada, with human rights educators, activists, writers, journalists and teachers from over sixty countries. This program provided basic knowledge I needed for my work. During my house-arrest in 2009, I participated in an online training course co-organised by Fahamu and the University of Oxford on ‘Investigating, Monitoring and Reporting on Human Rights Violations’ through which I learned the importance of keeping a written record.

In China, there is now a discussion about transitional justice. An important aspect of transitional justice is to discover what actually happened. Without documented evidence, how can there be discovery? I made this point in a recent article, ‘Redemption through Independent Documentary Film-making’. In it I wrote:

Justice in a society in transition is not about getting entangled in the past, financial compensation or providing explanations and statements. Rather, it is an occasion for sincere reflection and apology, for revealing a true and detailed account without any reservation, and a means for ending the persecution of people who hold dissenting views. Clarifying history and achieving transitional justice are absolutely necessary for the process of democratisation in China, something the Chinese Communist Party must do sooner or later. Each day of postponement adds one more day of damage to society.

Blogging is a very personal thing. Some people have criticised blog reports for lacking neutrality and objectivity but I believe that the personal perspective of the blogger provides something that the traditional news media cannot provide. Writing is first of all a conversation with oneself, a process by which one organizes one’s own thoughts and consoles oneself. Hu Jia recorded his life under house arrest with a digital video camera. It was similar to a daily blog.

I have written a number of things that may be called novels, poems, essays or something else. Many of them are immature or private and I have not published them. Regardless of the genre and content, I have always aimed to produce something of literary quality, with criteria like beautiful wording, freedom from ideological influence, precision of argument and so on, but I am a long way from these standards. I read and admire classical writers such as Qu Yuan, Li Bai, Li Shangyin, Li Qingzhao, Li Yu, Pu Songling and Cao Xueqin. I have read works by Wang Xiaobo, Haruki Murakami, Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), Milan Kundera, and George Orwell over and over. I very much like the Classic of Poetry 诗经, Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I also quite like the writings of Lu Yao, Xiao Hong, Su Qing, Paulo Coelho and Marina Tsvetaeva. I read quite randomly. I have read some classic masterpieces in translation and works on feminism, but not systematically. Lu Xun’s writings are a must-read for our generation, and I used to imitate his style at one time. I admire Han Han among the writers from my own generation. It’s hard to say exactly who has inspired me but all the writers mentioned above have influenced me to some extent.

Q: In 2007, Time magazine nominated you as one of ‘the one hundred men and women whose power, talent and moral example is transforming the world’. It said of you that: ‘By blogging truth to power, she is planting the seeds of a new – and true – cultural revolution.’ In your view, what does the expression ‘speaking truth to power’ mean in China today? And to what extent is blogging able to do this and to even ‘plant the seeds of a new cultural revolution’?

A: If it’s up to me, I’d just go by ‘speaking the truth’. I don’t intend to oppose the regime, to become the other side of the coin. To me, speaking the truth transcends party politics and power. It is how people should naturally behave in a normal society. Speaking truthfully does not mean that one wants to be oppositional. It is an attitude we are born with. Of course, in reality, speaking the truth offends those who suppress the facts, and people who normally stand for ‘power’. In today’s China, ‘speaking the truth’ first of all means giving up the benefits to be gained from being ambiguous. First, becoming a Communist Party member brings benefits: you get opportunities for promotion, if you’re at fault your punishment is mitigated and you also receive financial benefits. But you don’t believe in Communism. So do you join the Party or not? Second, in Chinese society, relationships and connections are important. They bring all kinds of little advantages and conveniences. Can you forego these rewards and be independent of all these ‘mutually beneficial’ social relations? Third, there is the situation of bearing witness. It is often costly for you to speak out about what you have witnessed. The extent to which you tell the truth depends on the cost you are willing to bear. At the very least, you should keep silent and adopt a stance of passive resistance when you are unable to speak the truth. One can only ask oneself how one would behave in these three situations.

What’s extraordinary about blogging is that it allows people to tell the truth as they see it, each from their own independent personal perspective. It’s like rescuing fish that the sea has tossed on the shore. Normally, you would only be able to save that one fish that you throw back into the sea. But on blogs and microblogs, millions of people are photographing and writing everyday. They speak the truth to the extent that they can and in doing so, they destroy the lies told by power and save tens of thousands of ‘small fish’. In a situation where only one person stands up for social justice, that person would be killed or imprisoned for life. But when one hundred, one thousand or even ten thousands people stand up for social justice, then everyone pays a much lower price. In many legal states and democratic countries, the blog is just a personal platform, but in a country such as China, blogs and microblogs in or outside the Great Firewall are a huge platform for the social movement. Everyone, whether they be members of the general public or senior government officials, ordinary folk or radical pioneers, gets tested there.

Q: Generally, human rights matter only when a local situation affects people directly and the concept of human rights itself may be interpreted in different ways. Human rights can be seen simply as a legal regime made up of standards and laws, yet as a discourse it is both global and local. It has moral connotations and is now often invoked by people who are the worst off in society. How do you understand the concept of human rights? In what ways can human rights be used to challenge the social, legal and political status quo?

A: Previously and for political reasons, the term ‘human rights’ carried negative connotations in China. It still isn’t a popular word. ‘Rightful resistance’ and ‘protect rights through the law’ are more commonly used by the public. The idea of human rights gained visibility through concrete situations. ‘The problem of education’, ‘health care issues’, ‘housing problems’, ‘residency permit problems’, ‘women’s problems’, ‘children’s problems’, ‘development problems’, ‘labour problems’, ‘media freedom issues’, ‘prisoner re-education problems’, ‘birth control problems’ … these are all concerns involving basic human rights. ‘Human rights’ is a universal value. I have no doubt that it has relevance in every aspect of society and at every level. An intelligent and practical approach is needed to deal with ‘human rights’ issues in concrete situations and professionals are far more experienced and knowledgeable than me on this point. What I have observed is that with the development of the citizen rights movement and public discussions both on- and offline, the mainland public has become much more aware of their ‘human rights’. Human rights will become more effective only when the public realises that human rights are universal. The state has also been using ‘human rights’ more frequently in public. It has also supported the journal Human Rights in order to define and work out its own ideas of ‘human rights’. I think we should encourage debates on ‘human rights’ so that it does not become confined to the state’s interpretation. ‘Volunteering’, for example, has taken on many negative connotations by association with the practices of the Communist Youth League. But I am not too concerned. The public has enough wisdom to create new words to describe the practice of human rights in the mainland Chinese context.

Q: In your view, is there a gender dimension to human rights activism? In what ways does ‘being a Chinese woman’ influence your mode of activism?

A: Recently, performance artists in China protested against domestic violence and the unequal treatment of women in college admissions and in the workplace. This attracted international media attention. Sexual minorities and lesbian groups are at the front line of the women’s rights movement. Platforms such as Les+, Common Language, Beijing Queer Film Festival, the difference/Gender art exhibition, Media Monitor for Women Network, Network for Women/Gender Studies provide useful information and opportunities for communication. In the human rights movements there are female lawyers such as Guo Yan, Liu Wei and Xiao Guozhen. There are also female activists such as Wang Lihong, Ai Xiaoming, Liu Yanping, Woeser and Mao Hengfeng, among others.

But I must say that in China’s human rights movement, there is definitely a huge gender imbalance. We urgently need to strengthen gender awareness in the community of lawyers and legal workers. To be gender aware requires far more than just publicising a woman’s plight. First, in terms of social relations, you have to ask yourself, how do you deal with domination and encourage partnership in work and everyday life? We are in a hierarchical political system where the presumed superiority of men has deep roots. The female suicide rate is twenty-five percent higher than that of men. Violence against women and children is considered normal: many people do not consider slapping a woman or child to be a violent act. Over decades, the effects of prenatal sex selection and female infanticide have produced a gender imbalance in China that is higher than the world’s average.

As a feminist, I am naturally concerned about the experiences of individuals (regardless of their gender), interested in everyday practice and in the value of women, and I believe in non-violence. My best friends include homosexuals and heterosexuals, some are queer, some are single, and others have unconventional families. I support unconditionally all sex workers and the right of people to practice in private whichever religion they choose. Naturally, we must continue our political resistance in public. I used to scold the state security police for their illegal behavior but I also told them that they were welcome to practice Zen Buddhism with me. I even said that if they were interested, I could organize a session of Zen Buddhist meditation for the police.

Q: We are also very keen to know more about your cinematographic experience. In 2007, you and Hu Jia made the documentary Prisoners in Freedom City. At the time, it was unique. It gave the public an understanding of what house arrest feels like, enabling people to appreciate the significance of documenting such difficult human experiences. At the time of shooting Prisoners in Freedom City, what was your understanding and knowledge of Chinese independent film- and documentary-making? Had you already seen Hu Jie’s In Search of Lin Zhao’s Soul 寻找林昭的灵魂, Ai Xiaoming’s The Epic of the Central Plains 中原记事 and Care and Love 关爱之家? What other Chinese or international documentaries had you watched?

A: When we began filming Prisoners in Freedom City, we had no plans to make a documentary though at the time we realised that documentary film-making was a direct way of preserving evidence and telling the truth. It not only provides evidence of human rights violations but keeps a true record of the process and progress of social activism. The digital video footage that Hu Jia has filmed since he began working on AIDS in 2001 has become an important research resource. It also facilitates communication with volunteers, funding agencies and the public. Some of the footage was included in the documentary The Knight of Henan, by Humphrey Wou of the AIDS Relief Fund for China, which was favorably reviewed by people in AIDS activist circles. In order to protect the patients, the film has not been shown in public. Hu Jia’s video clips and photographs have also been incorporated into the reports of dozens of media organisations.


Four guards. Snapshot from

Four guards. Snapshot from Prisoner in Freedom City.

As for filming the police that surrounded us, Hu Jia was not only documenting evidence of his house arrest. He was making a video diary of his life. He observed the behavior of the oppressors – the security police and the plain-clothes police – reflected on the relationship between the prisoners and the guards, and, more broadly, between the individual and the state. He also talked to himself, to the birds and to the sheep, by way of consoling himself and so the film was also a process of self-documentation.

In early 2007, I knew little about Chinese independent documentary and I hadn’t seen many independent films. Even though I had seen some works by Chen Weijun, Hu Jie and Professor Ai Xiaoming, my focus at the time was on the social issues examined in the documentaries. My understanding of documentary film as a cinematic form was largely informed by my interest in cinema when I was at university. Back then, I saw hundreds of classic and contemporary films of all genres except action films. Hu Jia was imprisoned in 2008 by which time I had endured long-term surveillance, house arrest, harassment and I could not find work. To take my mind off these many difficulties, I went to Song Zhuang 宋庄, where many artists lived and worked, to view their exhibitions and to have something to eat (these were the only activities allowed by the police). There I came into contact with organizers and filmmakers at the Fanhall Studio and the Li Xianting Film Fund, people like Feng Yan, Ji Dan, Zhu Rikun, Wang Wo, Ying Liang, Wang Hongwei, Cong Feng, Zhao Liang, and Cui Zi’en. At the time, Shi Tou and Ming Ming were already my friends. Through their art works (whether writing, painting, film, installation, or performance art) and my interactions with these artists, I began to gain an understanding of independent documentary. Song Zhuang’s film archives, which are not open to the public, and the district’s unofficial film festivals enabled me to watch many documentary films made by Chinese filmmakers. I was very impressed by these independent filmmakers. They are truly avant-garde members of the citizen rights movement: avant-garde in seeking freedom and avant-garde in artistic expression. By the early 1990s, they had already focused their attention on important social issues which the authorities had sidelined, and they gave powerful expression to their concerns using documentary film. [For more on Song Zhuang and contemporary independent Chinese film, see Ying Qian, ‘Surviving in the Shadows‘, also in The China Story Journal.—Ed.]

In 2006, I had the idea of editing Hu Jia’s video diary into a documentary film. On the one hand, this was because we needed to describe our experience. It was very hard for the general public to understand what long-term house arrest felt like and how we were putting up a resistance in spite of it. In 2006, my blog posts attracted attention from all over the world, yet writing repeatedly about our daily situation left me feeling exhausted and powerless. I wanted to find a new way to describe ‘everyday oppression and everyday resistance’. On the other hand, I wanted to express what it felt like to have human concerns when living in a totalitarian system, when the situation was as absurd as ‘waiting for Godot’. Perhaps you have already noticed from the film that the prison guards had even less freedom than the prisoner. The prisoner brought dumplings to the prison guards who were working shifts on Chinese New Year’s Eve. I made Prisoners in Freedom City as if I was editing an essay, as if I was planning a stage play. I hoped to attract public attention to the situation of house arrest and its deep impact on the people involved.