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Blurry xeroxes versus blogposts

The first “cause” I ever got involved with – as a 13-year old high school student – was Amnesty International. My father was a criminal defense attorney who specialized in parole revocation – this meant that the vast majority of his clients were in prison. I’d visited half a dozen prisons with him by the time I was a teenager, and was sufficiently freaked out by prisons that Amnesty’s campaigns to release the wrongfully imprisoned was something I wanted to be involved with.

Being my high school’s representative for Amnesty meant manning a table in one of the busiest hallways and trying to convince fellow students to add their names to petitions or, if they were really excited, writing letters to world leaders demanding they release political prisoners.

It’s not easy to get high school students excited about anything that doesn’t involve romance with their classmates. But the problem was complicated by the materials Amnesty sent us to work with which weren’t much help. For each prisoner, we got a paragraph of information which described the circumstances in which someone had been detained and another paragrah explaining the work the person had done before detention. In rare cases, we also got a blurry, xeroxed photo of the detainee.

This information doesn’t go a long way towards helping overprivileged, globally-ignorant teenagers empathise with the families of prisoners of conscience. Indeed, my Amnesty chapter co-founder didn’t bother sharing it with her fellow students. She just threatened them with bodily harm if they didn’t sign the petitions. Her method averaged about three times as many signatures as my method.

I found myself thinking about these twenty year-old letter campaigns as I was reading blog entries by Wu Na and Zeng Jinyan earlier today. Zeng Jinyan is the wife of Hu Jia, an AIDS activist who was arrested in February while under house arrest in Tongzhou. She began blogging shortly after his arrest, and has continued since his release on March 21st.

Wu Na, also known as “Nina”, is the older sister of Hao Wu, my friend and colleague who’s been detained in Beijing since February 22nd. She began blogging on March 30th after waiting for five weeks to see if the authorities would release her brother.

As John Kennedy, who’s helping fill in for Hao while he’s detained, observes in a blog post on Global Voices, Nina and Zeng are paying close attention to each other’s blogs. Nina recently wrote:

Ever since I found “Where is Hu Jia?” on Google, Jinyan’s blog was a rest stop for my soul. I would often read her diary and the comments following it, sharing her joys and sorrows, as I too had experienced the pain and confusion after the disappearance of a loved one. Now, Hu Jia has returned. I am wholeheartedly happy for [Jinyan] and her family, and I will continue to search for my brother. With the support of my friends, I believe that I will also wait for the day when I can smile again.

And Zeng has offered her support and hope to Nina, offering a comment on Nina’s blog and post on her blog, translated by Rebecca:

Nina, today on my blog I wrote this, in hopes that everybody will come here and support you. Take care of yourself, keep yourself safe, conserve your energy for the long haul.

“What a huge social stage. I’ve been part of the audience, then I got on stage, now I’m audience and on stage at the same time. After Hu Jia came home, I heard that some other women are suffering similar pain to my own. When I see these two links, http://ethanzuckerman.com/haowu/ (English) http://spaces.msn.com/wuhaofamily/ (Chinese) its clear that the people writing them are going through great unhappiness. Through the words I re-lived the pain, re-lived the cruelty. It’s like being betrayed all over again. There’s nothing I can do, I can only give Nina a message of support each day. The fact that our blogs have not been shut down is something worth celebrating, but it’s unclear if this is a step toward freedom or not.”

It’s hugely important that blogging is helping these women support each other while their loved ones are detained. But there’s another implication – blogging is making it possible for the families of people who are unjustly detained to share their emotions with the world. I’m able to share the facts of Hao’s detention with the world, but only Nina is able to share her feelings about her brother’s detention:

Outside, I have the support of a husband, friends and lawyers. Inside, my brother cannot read or receive any information from outside. Isn’t he even more alone and helpless? I must remain firm. I can’t break down before my brother does. Just as I believe that my brother has a generous and loving heart, I will always believe that my brother is innocent. I only hope that his honest personality will not bring him too much hardship and suffering.

I wrote a few days back about the change in advocacy from representing to pointing. Obviously, this isn’t a change that happens overnight – in trying to get Hao Wu released, we’re representing, pointing and translating, so that readers inside and outside China can understand what’s going on. But the fact that we can hear what Nina’s thinking and feeling provides a daily reminder that Hao’s detention has shattered the lives of his family, a reminder that everyone who is detained for speaking freely is the center of a personal drama as well as a political one.

If I were a high school student today, I suspect I’d be nagging friends via instant messenger to sign onto a web-based petition. But I’d be able to point them to the blog of the man who’s detained, and the blog of the sister desperate to see him released… which just might be more effective than handing them blurry xeroxes.