Hu Jia, a human rights activist, was arrested in 2007 and spent more than three years in prison in China. He has advocated for free speech, environmental issues and the rights of Chinese citizens with HIV/AIDS. In 2008, he was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Parliament’s highest human rights honor.

Last month brought the end of the official period that my political rights were suspended. Under Chinese law, I am now free to say whatever I want. But a week before this happened, local police who for the past year have largely prevented visitors from reaching me began to stop me from going out. And I was beaten.

June is a tense, sensitive time in China. There is the anniversary of the Tianamnen massacre on June 4. State security steps up “home surveillance,” or house arrest, each year on the people viewed as threats or likely to protest. Under such home surveillance, police don’t observe legal procedures. They don’t tell me when it will be over or why they are there. I can’t tell if I can go outside from one day to the next.

Then there is International Day in Support of Victims of Torture on June 26, which hundreds of thousands of Chinese should mark. But Chinese authorities hold no commemorations. They hope that citizens do not learn of the designation, because the ruling party uses torture to govern.

June 26 is a significant day for me. When the Chinese government announced the slogan of the Beijing Olympics, “One World, One Dream,” on June 26, 2005, I thought the Olympics would be an opportunity to promote freedom and democracy in Chinese society.

But one year later, when two lawyers and I drove to Dongshigu village on June 26, 2006, to investigate and collect evidence regarding the arrest of the blind lawyer and activist Chen Guangcheng, our car was blocked by local government staff, and we were violently attacked. Before that, I had been followed for 41 consecutive days.

I was convicted in 2008 of “incitement to subvert state power” and jailed for more than three years. When I was released from prison on June 26, 2011, my home and the roads around it were blocked by uniformed and plainclothes police. More than 200 officers sought to stop my visitors. I realized I had gone from a small prison with high walls and electric fences to a big prison in society.

A couple of things are clear to me: Unless democracy grants all Chinese citizens freedom, I won’t enjoy freedom as an individual. And with the Communist Party’s 18th National Congress due to be held in the autumn, political housecleaning has started.

When Chinese people are deprived of their political rights, they are not allowed to vote or to attend elections, assemblies, parades or protests. They are not allowed to publish articles, accept interviews or speak in public. But the truth is that Chinese citizens’ political rights have been effectively suspended for decades. We don’t have general elections, so we cannot choose our ruler. We don’t have an independent judiciary; the Communist Party’s political and legal affairs committee is the final judge.

Moreover, all branches of the government, including the tax bureau, the religious affairs bureau and the family-planning commission, prioritize maintaining stability. Weiwen, or “stability maintenance,” is the biggest crime committed by the government and the most common violation of human rights.

The mistreatment of Chen Guangcheng, Ai Weiwei and me underscores how taxpayers’ money is wasted — not just the detentions and abuse but the human resources and exorbitant sums spent to prevent us from speaking out. The government acts illegitimately because in China power is superior to law. And the interests of the ruling party always stand opposite to the interests of people.

For 63 years, China has been engaged in a civil war, between its people and the party, over dignity and rights. In recent decades, the Tiananmen massacre, the suppression of Falun Gong and religious freedom, and violent “family planning” policies all have contributed to a human rights disaster. In a democratic system, this government would have been impeached hundreds of times. Consider just the one-child policy that has produced countless tragedies. Millions of infants have been killed. The daily abuses of power feed more disasters. China has institutionalized abuse of power, through the Political and Legal Affairs Committee, and individuals within the system, such as Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun, also take advantage of their positions.

Amid the global tide of democratization, China’s stagnation is equal to retrogression. The question of who succeeds Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao is not important now. Citizens are the most important force for political reform — and what matters is our courage and wisdom, what actions we take, and how many citizens wake up.

The Communist Party has never taken the initiative to reform. Officials have made small changes only when faced with domestic or international pressure, or when they felt they stood to lose more if they did not change. Even the slightest progress in China comes at a huge price paid by citizens — with their dignity, freedom, wealth, health and lives.

Human rights violation is the core issue of Chinese society. The government’s “National Human Rights Action of China” plan, released in 2008, has proven to be empty words. The new plan issued last month doesn’t need to be taken seriously. China’s people should make their own Citizens’ Human Rights Action Plan: outline their hopes and what they will do to achieve them.

I, as an ordinary Chinese citizen, have some plans for the next year: I intend to strive for more space for free speech and freedom of religion and to appeal for better treatment and the release of political prisoners; I will urge officials to publicly disclose their assets; I will ask the National People’s Congress to approve the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has been postponed in China for 14 years; I will help coordinate citizens’ human rights actions; and I will advocate abolishing the Central Propaganda Department and the Political and Legal Affairs Committee — those branches of government that support the dictatorship through lies, terror and violence.

This is an era to make changes at the individual and institutional levels. Democratization of China should be a global priority. Wherever Chinese politicians visit, appeals about human rights should be heard. Meetings with dissidents should be routine for the foreign politicians and diplomats who come here. And we hope that foreign electorates will support candidates who pay attention to China’s human rights issues and condemn those politicians and businesses that consider only their own interests.

No matter how severe the environment, China’s people have reason to be confident and optimistic. We can encourage and comfort the old: Democracy will be realized in this lifetime. In an autocratic society, both the rulers and their subjects live in fear. The rulers’ cruelty is rooted in their fear of resistance or punishment. Autocracy as an institution continuously produces crime, bitterness and tragedy.

Turning China into a democratic and lawful society in the next 10 years is the only peaceful option. Conciliation will never arrive without truth or confession. The sooner the Communist Party wakes up, the smaller the cost will be.