Posts tagged: Tiananmen

Without A Tomb To Sweep: The Death of Liu Xiaobo

By , July 16, 2017

2010 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Liu Xiaobo

This past Saturday, China Law & Policy marked the 8th anniversary of its founding.  But a commemorative birthday piece seemed inappropriate with the news that a few days earlier China’s only Noble Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, died in police custody.

Since the founding of this blog, Liu Xiaobo has been in jail. His crime?  His speech.  And in examining the Chinese government’s cruel response to Liu’s death, it is this speech that this aspiring superpower continues to fear.  Liu Xiaobo was not a murderer, a terrorist, and or even a revolutionary.  He was merely a Chinese activist, academic and public intellectual that for close to 30 years, used his pen to call upon the Chinese government to live up to its commitment to human rights; a commitment that China has agreed to by signing on to certain international treaties; a commitment that was written into the amended Chinese Constitution in 2004.

Liu’s most recent prison sentence wasn’t his first.  In 1989, Liu, who came back to China from a prestigious fellowship at Columbia University to support the students in Tiananmen Square, was sentenced to almost two years in jail for partaking in the movement.  When he was released, Liu lost his university position and his writings were

Liu Xiaobo (with megaphone) at the 1989 protests on Tiananmen Square. Later, Liu would be credited with brokering a peace with the troops to allow the couple of hundred of students left on the Square on June 4 to leave without bloodshed.

banned in China.  In 1996 Liu was  imprisoned for three years, this time in a Re-Education Through Labor camp, for a series of essays criticizing the Chinese government and calling for greater democracy for the Chinese people.  Then, in late 2008, Liu co-drafted a document known as “Charter 08.”  Modeled after Charter 77, the document that sparked the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Charter 08, called for greater human rights in China, the end of one-party rule and an independent legal system.  Nothing terribly revolutionary. But for that, Liu was arrested, tried for inciting subversion of state power and, on Christmas Day 2009, sentenced to a harsh term of 11 years.  When he died last Thursday, Liu had only had about two years left on his sentence.  He hadn’t been heard from since his 2009 conviction.

But the silencing of Liu Xiaobo for the past eight years was not enough for the current regime.  When he was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 2010, the Chinese government vehemently criticized the choice and placed his wife, Liu Xia, under unlawful house arrest, house arrest that continues to today.  The Chinese internet was censored for any mention of Liu and the state-controlled media was not allowed to report on his prize.

Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia in happier times.

And even though, according to his wife, Liu was diagnosed by prison doctors with hepatitis B as early as 2010, his hepatitis was allowed to fester into liver cancer.  It appears that that Liu was only given proper medical treatment when it was too late – when the antiviral drugs that slows down hepatitis B from becoming liver cancer would no longer work, when embolization of the tumor would no longer be effective and when surgery could no longer be used to save a life.  It was only when the cancer became truly incurable that the Chinese government permitted Liu Xiaobo to go to a hospital – under constant guard – and die with his wife by his side. But even in his dying days, he was still denied dignity; the state-controlled media released pictures of Liu in the hospital, maintaining that the state had only given him the best care.  They would not let him go abroad as he requested, likely fearing that he would use his final breaths to criticize the Chinese government.

The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and the empty chair where Liu Xiaobo was to sit.

With his death on Thursday, the Chinese regime rushed to hold a funeral so that Liu’s friends and admirers could not make it.  By Saturday morning, Liu Xiaobo’s wife buried his ashes at sea, likely at the demand of the Chinese government so that it could ensure that a tombstone would not be erected and potentially serve as a pilgrimage site. Liu’s brother was paraded on state-run TV stating that the quick sea burial was the family’s wishes. Even in his death, Liu was used as a propaganda tool, with pictures of his shell-shocked wife standing by the coffin and mechanically lowering his ashes into the ocean.  Since Thursday, 1.4 billion Chinese people have experienced a news blackout on anything related to Liu Xiaobo. International news channels were pulled from the air, the state-run media has been ordered not to report on Liu’s passing and Chinese censors have been in overdrive, taking down posts with RIP and candle emojis as the Chinese people attempt to publicly show their respect to their countryman.

Thousands of mourners in Hong Kong hold a march in honor of Liu Xiaobo. (Photo courtesy of the Guardian)

China is the second largest economy in the world and most believe that it will soon supplant the United States as the Asia regional superpower.  But yet this is how it responds to the death of one critique in its midst.  A man whose only weapons were words and thoughts.  If China still wonders why it can’t successfully project soft power internationally, this is it.  While the Chinese government protests that it treated Liu with utmost care in prison, provided as much medical care as possible at the end, and permitted his family to hold a funeral, it still can’t ignore the fact that it imprisoned – and essentially killed – a man for his thoughts.  The last Noble Peace Prize winner to die in state custody was Carl von Ossietky, the 1935 winner who, in 1938, died in a Nazi concentration camp.  It’s never a good thing to be compared to the Nazi regime.

But even more troubling is that the Chinese regime’s suppression of Liu Xiaobo’s speech – both in life and in death – reflects a government that does not trust its own people.  Is Liu’s words going to cause revolution in the streets?  Probably not.  But yet they cannot be heard.  And in recent years, that distrust has only worsened.  Two years ago, the Chinese government conducted a nationwide crackdown on China’s civil rights lawyers, lawyers who use the legal system to protect people’s legal rights; nothing particularly revolutionary about that tactic.  And any civil society organization that becomes too successful, is shut down.  The Chinese people are left with no outlet to shape their own society and demand that their government live up to its ideals. Instead, the Chinese government distrusts anyone who it believes dissents.  But as Liu Xiaobo noted in the speech that was read at his Noble Prize ceremony, that enemy mentality will be a setback to progress:

Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy. . . . Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.

Impromptu memorial for Liu Xiaobo in Flushing, Queens, NYC (Courtesy of Facebook)

And Liu’s words and thoughts are not just ripe for the Chinese government right now but for all of us.  Especially as the current United States Administration focuses less on human rights.  On Thursday, President Trump issued a pathetic statement on Liu’s death through his press secretary. And only after he gushed about the greatness of China’s president Xi Jinping a mere hours after Liu’s passing.  It wasn’t just China who lost a hero on Thursday, but the world.  And the world needs the ideals of Liu Xiaobo now more than ever.  May you rest in peace Liu Xiaobo and may we find the courage to continue your struggle both in China and in the world at large.

As the Sun Rises on Tiananmen

Bird’s eye view of Tiananmen Square

On Sunday, the sun will rise once again on Tiananmen Square, much like it did on the same Sunday 28 years ago.  But unlike that Sunday – June 4, 1989 – Beijing will not awaken to its city occupied by the Chinese military nor the streets surrounding Tiananmen Square littered with the dead bodies of unarmed civilians.

Instead, life will go on in China with no official acknowledgement of the anniversary of that fateful day 28 years ago when the Chinese government ordered its military to open fire on its own people. The exact number of people killed the night of June 3, 1989 into the early morning hours of June 4 is only known to the perpetrators of the massacre: the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”). But whether it was a few hundred or a few thousand does not diminish the fact that peaceful protests were squashed with such a violent – and unnecessary – crackdown.

Hundreds of thousands gather on Tiananmen Square, June 2, 1989 (Photo courtesy of CNN.com)

Contrary to the CCP’s interpretation of events, the protests in Beijing were not counter-revolutionary attempts to undermine the CCP. And contrary to the Western media’s perceptions at the time, it was not an effort to bring Western democracy to China.  Instead, the protests were deeply rooted in China’s own history and tradition, a tradition of students conducting patriotic demonstrations in an effort to strengthen their country.

In 1989, those efforts were directed at the nepotism and corruption that was beginning to plague the CCP, the economic turmoil brought on by inflation, the lack of personal freedoms and government censorship.  While students started the protests, eventually, much of the populace joined in, with workers going on strike to support the movement.  By mid-May, the protests would draw over a million people on a daily basis. Neither the May 19 declaration of martial law nor the pleading by sympathetic leaders for protesters to clear the square stopped the protests.  And on June 3, 1989, Deng Xiaoping gave the order for the army to fire on the civilians.

Tanks roll onto Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989

For a brief time after the crackdown, the CCP did acknowledge the event. Not to celebrate the brave men and women who gave their lives to better their country, but to condemn them. Slowly, however, the CCP’s policy changed and instead of trying to change the narrative of that night, the CCP chose to forget it.  Today, the Tiananmen massacre is largely scrubbed from the Chinese internet, it is not allowed to be discussed openly and many of the children born after 1989 do not know of the truth of that night.

But every year, there are still those in China willing to risk their freedom to commemorate the violent crackdown on Tiananmen Square.  A few years ago it was Chinese netizens reposting the image of the Tank Man – the Chinese citizen stopping a line of tanks, a banned picture on the Chinese internet – standing in front of a line of large, yellow rubber ducks.  The picture spread on the Chinese internet until the Chinese authorities got wind, and censored “yellow rubber duck.”  This year, it is four men who produced a Chinese rice wine with a label that references “6*4”, a shorthand for the June 4 crackdown, and calls on people to “never forget.”  While the bottle has been smuggled out of China by a sympathetic Chinese official, those four men are currently facing charges of inciting subversion of state power.

As much as the CCP may try, China will not forget the brave men and women who lost their lives on June 4, 1989.  For there are still enough Chinese people who are willing to put their safety on the line to ensure that that does not happen.

Wang Nan’s Tian’anmen 26 Years Later

An early photo of Wang Nan, late 1980s

Wang Nan (pronounced Wong Nan) is a 45 year old Beijinger.  Born in 1970, he has seen his city radically change under China’s economic miracle.  In fact, as a photojournalist, he has documented China’s unfathomable rise and has been fortunate enough to partake in it.  Wang Nan and his wife live more than comfortably in their renovated, Western-style apartment, where his photos from around the world line the walls.  He knows he has been lucky, and he will tell you that immediately when you meet him; even with his world travels, he is still a fairly humble man.  His 11-year-old daughter worships him even when he sings off key on their Sunday morning car rides to visit his mother.  His 78-year-old mother, like all mothers, criticizes him as soon as he arrives – his hair is too long, he’s too skinny, he spoils his daughter – her granddaughter – too much.  But like all mothers, she is proud of her son.  And Sunday is her favorite day of the week.

But Wang Nan is not 45 years old.  He has not shared in China’s economic miracle.  He does not have a daughter.  And he never sees his mother.   For Wang Nan never made it past the age of 19.   Instead, in the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, on the corner of Nancheng Street and Chang’an Boulevard – the Boulevard of Eternal Peace – a People’s Liberation Army’s bullet ripped through this high school student’s head.

As Louisa Lim recounts in her powerful book The People’s Republic of Amnesia, Wang Nan’s heart was still faintly

June 4, 1989, the aftermath of the Tian’anmen Crackdown

beating when doctors found him unconscious, bleeding from the head.  They wanted to take him to the hospital, but the soldiers forbade it.  Frantically, the doctors used their last bandage to cover his wound and stayed with him until he died two hours later.  With the sun rising on that June 4 morning 26 years ago and desperate to hide the bodies, the soldiers dug a shallow grave in the lawn of the nearby school and dumped Wang Nan’s body  there along with two other civilians.  There it would lie until a few days later, when the stench was overwhelming  and the dirt was beginning to wash away, the health department came to collect the bodies.

Wang Nan’s mother, Zhang Xianling (pronounced Zhang See-ann Ling), one of the founders of the Tian’anmen Mothers, has never been allowed to visit the spot where her son took his last breath.  Every June 4, she is held under house arrest, with police standing guard at her apartment door, refusing to let her leave or for anyone else to come in.  In a symbol of tormented anguish, she will communicate with the outside world on the anniversary of her son’s death by holding a photo of him out of her apartment window.

Zhang Xianling with a picture of her son, Wang Nan, killed on June 4, 1989

Twenty-six years later, as Lim poignantly recounts in her book, it is this impediment to remembrance and the Chinese Communist Party’s (“CCP”) complete control of the history surrounding June 4th that is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all.  And as Lim points out, it is not just the parents who lost children that are not permitted to remember.  Bao Tong (pronounced Bow (rhymes with pow) Tongue), director of China’s Office of Political Reform in 1989 and right-hand man to his mentor Zhao Ziyang, believed that Deng’s economic reform must be coupled with political reform, otherwise corruption would prevail.  After the Tian’anmen crackdown, it was those thoughts that were blamed for the student protests and resulted in a seven year prison sentence for Bao.  In 2005, when Zhao Ziyang passed away, the police, which constantly stand guard at his apartment, refused to let Bao attend the funeral.  When his elderly wife attempted to go, the police pushed her to the ground, causing her to break a bone.

It is this recounting of the people’s history and the ghosts that still haunt them, that makes The People’s Republic of Amnesia one of the most important and moving books about the Tian’anmen crackdown.  Lim also does an excellent and unbiased job of describing the precise events that lead up to the crackdown making the book a must read for anyone who wants to understand China’s history and the current leadership’s obsession with “social stability” and complete control.

But Lim not only tells the stories of those who witnessed the crackdown, but also those for whom June 4, 1989 has no significance, namely the babies born after 1990.  In one study that Lim conducted, only 15 out of 100 Chinese college students were able to identify the infamous Tank Man photo, a photo that epitomizes the Tian’anmen crackdown and that is perhaps one of the world’s greatest symbols of courage.  She follows a college student who goes to Hong Kong to try to understand Tian’anmen, but when he returns to China, he just seems confused and deflated.  And then there is the Patriot, a Chinese car salesman who goes to Beijing to participate in the government-sponsored protests against the Japanese.  Their failure and inability to know about the Tian’anmen crackdown demonstrates the true effectiveness of the CCP’s re-writing of the Chinese people’s history.

Or does it?  Yes, there is a generation of Chinese who have not heard of the Tian’anmen massacre.  And then there are others who choose not to care.  But to assume that the CCP can so easily erase this dark moment in China’s history is to deny the Chinese people their conscience.  There is still a generation of Chinese – those born in the late 1960s and early 1970s – who know about Tian’anmen because they were alive when it happened.  When this generation comes to power and can change the history, will they?  Yes they might be busy making money now, but they have yet to ascend to leadership roles that would enable them to disclose the truth and recognize the bravery of those who died on June 4, 1989.

Tens of thousands march in Hong Kong last year to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the Tian’anmen Massacre

There are the 11 Chinese college students, currently studying in various universities in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, who wrote an open letter to the Chinese people to communicate what happened on June 4, 1989.  The government-controlled Global Times responded with an op-ed condemning these students.  Like the students of 1989, these students have chosen to jeopardize their futures in China in an attempt to get the CCP to acknowledge June 4.

And then there are those – like the doctors who tried to help Wang Nan as he laid dying or the medical intern who, knowing the danger, gave Zhang Xianling her son’s last effects, or the individual who took out an ad in 2007 in a Chengdu newspaper stating “Paying tribute to the strong(-willed) mothers of June 4 victims” – who, when confronted with the choice, will do what is morally right, not what is politically expedient.

For these people, the world must continue to remember June 4, 1989, so that when the Chinese people themselves can commemorate this anniversary on their own terms, the memory will still be there.

Rating: ★★★★★

The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited
By Louisa Lim
(Oxford University Press, 2014)
211 pages

 

25 Years After Tiananmen – Same, Same But Different

The Goddess of Democracy - the symbol of the Tiananmen Square Protests

The Goddess of Democracy – the symbol of the Tiananmen Square Protests

Twenty-five years ago, on the night of June 3 and into the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, tanks rolled in to the streets of Beijing and the Chinese government did the unthinkable: it opened fire on its own people, killing hundreds if not thousands of unarmed civilians in the streets surrounding Tiananmen Square.  That violent crackdown marked the end of seven weeks of student-led, peaceful protests in the Square itself, protests that were supported by much of the rest of Beijing, protests that would amass hundreds of thousands of people a day, protests that people wistfully thought would change China.

Twenty-five years later the students who participated in the protests are no longer fresh-faced, wide-eyed college kids, the workers who supported them are retired, and many of the bicycle rickshaw drivers who ferried dying students to hospitals on that bloody Sunday morning are long gone.  Along Chang’An Avenue, glitzy buildings have replaced the blood and bullet holes.  Starbucks stand near where students once went on hunger strikes. Tiananmen is different; China is different.  But yet there are some things that remain the same.

The government that ordered the crackdown 25 years ago – the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) – is still in power and many of the gripes that initiated the student protests – corruption and nepotism among political elites, lack of personal freedoms, and government censorship – have only gotten worse and continue to be the impetuous for activists.  And, like the students in 1989, these activists are still willing to risk their lives to promote the values enshrined in the Chinese Constitution and guide China to become a better place for its people.

But make no mistake, while these factors might be the same, there are important aspects of China that have changed.  In

Hundreds of thousands of Beijing residents - students, workers, ordinary people - supported the protests.

Hundreds of thousands of Beijing residents – students, workers, ordinary people – supported the protests.

particular, China’s rise as a global power.  Criticizing China for human rights violations and its failure to live up to its own laws is not as easy as it was in 1989 when President George H.W. Bush cut off government ties, military relations, and the sale of U.S. government goods the day after the Chinese government’s crackdown.  Imagine denying U.S. businesses the opportunity to sell products to the world’s second largest economy?  That would never happen today.  And to severe relations with China – would the American public want to so easily give up its cheap Walmart goods or be denied the ability to obtain the newest iPhone?  Probably not.  The Chinese government understands the soothing and influential comforts of our material desires.

But perhaps the most troublesome change is how the CCP now deals with dissent.  If the last few months are any guide, excessive violence continues to be the modus operandi of the CCP.  Cao Shunli (pronounced Ts-ow Shoon-lee), an activist who organized small, peaceful protests that called for citizen participation in China’s United Nations human rights review, was detained for “picking quarrels and causing trouble,” was denied medical treatment for months, and died in police custody.  Tang Jitian (pronounced Tang Jee tee-an), a disbarred-lawyer-now-activist that sought to assist Falun Gong practitioners, has recounted the physical torture he suffered while in police custody in March.  Since coming out of detention with 16 broken ribs, Tang has all but effectively been denied appropriate medical care for his tuberculosis which has gotten significantly worse.

Deaths of many protesters lined the streets surrounding the Square

Deaths of many protesters lined the streets surrounding the Square

But the CCP has learned from its mistakes.  No longer is its violence against dissent as public as it was the morning of June 4, 1989.  And no longer does the CCP come off as a lawless regime.  Instead, its cloaks its crackdowns with a veneer of legality.  Since April 2014, in preparation for the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, the Chinese government has detained – either criminally or through unofficial house arrest – over 84 individuals.  But these individuals are not detained under the guise of being counter revolutionaries like the students of the 1989 movement.  That would be too obvious.  Instead, the Chinese government has slapped the vague and overly broad crime of  “picking quarrels and provoking troubles.”  After 20 years of Western rule of law programs, the CCP has come to realize that the easiest way to deflect global criticism is to follow legal procedure, no matter how abusive, vague or entrapping that legal procedure might be.

If the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen means anything, China’s new strategy – the use of law to suppress dissent – must be

Everyday rickshaw drivers tried to save many of the students

Everyday rickshaw drivers tried to save many of the students

examined and criticized.  China’s activists are being violently detained and imprisoned in record numbers “in accordance with the law.”  But that suppression of dissent is no different than what happened in 1989.  It is another method of killing the chicken to scare the monkeys – ensuring that the violence against a few “troublemakers” teaches the rest of society not to rock the boat.  This time though the rest of the world is increasingly complacent.

As the world marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on Wednesday, China will be the lone nation that will not.  Since 1989, its people have been forbidden to commemorate the event; they are not permitted to remember; they are not allowed to note those fateful days that changed their lives more than anything in China’s recent past.  And that is why the events that other nations hold in honor of the many brave Chinese people who lost their lives on that night are so important.  Because while the Chinese government has found new strategies to more effectively deal with international criticism of its treatment of its people, the one thing that the outside world still has is the truth.  But that truth must not be limited to just what happened 25 years ago; it must also be used to call on China today stop its suppression of dissent today.  To do otherwise is a disservice the victims of that night.

One of the most iconic photos of the 20th Century - one man stands up to a line of tanks

One of the most iconic photos of the 2oth Century – one man stands up to a line of tanks

Tipping Point in Censorship?

Have we hit a tipping point?

Last November I attended a fascinating talk by Rebecca MacKinnon, guru on all things censored and author of Consent of the Networked: The Worldwide Struggle For Internet Freedom. At the talk, MacKinnon’s focus was on the Chinese corporations that do China’s censorship bidding. MacKinnon noted that China’s internet regulations are not enforced by the government; rather the companies that manage China’s various and extremely active blogs and microblogs are responsible for enforcing China’s online censorship laws and regulations. Yes such censorship leaves these companies’ customers angry, but its worth it for what they get in exchange: an exclusive monopoly that keeps out more sophisticated players like Facebook and Twitter.

But MacKinnon hypothesized that at some point it won’t be economically worth it for these companies to continue to censor. MacKinnon highlighted the complete internet shutdown that occurred in Xinjiang province in 2009 for the entire year. That shut down harmed the local and regional economy. But even that wasn’t enough to cause these internet companies to push back against the government’s internet censorship and control. Instead, MacKinnon mused about the impact that such efforts would have in a more populous region or city, say like Shanghai.

And on Monday it looked like perhaps China reached that tipping point. Monday, June 4, marked the 23rd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, a sensitive date for China’s Communist Party. On Monday, the Shanghai stock market closed 64.89 points down. But 64.89 is not just any number, it’s the numerical translation of June 4, 1989. As reported in the New York Times, searches for “Shanghai stock,” “Shanghai stock market” and “index” were censored in response to this coincidence.

But can you imagine a country that censors words that are important for commerce? These aren’t searches for “Chen Guangcheng” or other Chinese activists; those searches would pull results that are obviously about human rights. But searches for business terms? To censor that in a market relies on the speed and effectiveness of the internet is not just plain wacky but bad for business.

Obviously the Shanghai stock market censorship is not yet the tipping point as internet censorship is still alive and well. But it makes me wonder, are we getting closer? Is what MacKinnon speculated – that eventually the goals of the Chinese government and of the Chinese internet companies will diverge – inevitable? To the extent that you buy into the hypothesis that the Chinese people have “made a deal” with their government – that in exchange for economic security the Chinese will give up some of their political freedoms – is it inevitable that that deal will be broken? The Shanghai stock market debacle hints that maybe in the end its the Party’s own paranoid censorship that will be its death knell.

Imprisoned Chinese Dissident Wins Nobel Peace Prize

By , October 8, 2010

Liu Xiaobo

This morning, the Nobel Prize Committee announced the winner of its 2010 Nobel Peace Prize: Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo (pronounced Leo See-ow Bwo).  But don’t expect Liu to be able to go to Norway to accept his prize; Liu is currently serving the first year of an 11-year prison term.

In all respects, Liu is perhaps the most famous of China’s human rights activists, at least internationally, and one of its longest serving.  Liu, an intellectual, literary critic, professor and writer, first emerged on the human rights scene in 1989 during the Tian’anmen student protests.  When the protests began in the Spring of 1989, Liu was at Columbia University in New York.  Immediately boarding a flight, Liu, a professor at Beijing Normal University, joined the students in hunger strikes on Tian’anmen Square.  But by June 3, sensing the danger of an impending crackdown, Liu encouraged the students to withdraw from the Square before the Chinese army was likely to violently suppress the student-led protests.  While many of the students did leave the Square, Liu’s pleas were for naught; on the streets surrounding the Square, an unknown number, likely reaching in the thousands, were killed.  After the suppression of the movement, Liu was tried for “counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement” and convicted although ultimately exempted from criminal punishment. 

During the 1990s, Liu’s commitment to greater human rights in China did not waiver.  In the long tradition of the Chinese dissident, Liu took up the pen and during the 1990s, wrote a series of essays criticizing the Chinese government and calling for greater democracy for the Chinese people.  With his essays receiving accolades from abroad and censure from those high up in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the Chinese government detained him and sent him to a labor camp through China’s “Re-education Through Labor” (RETL).  RETL is an administrative punishment, not a criminal one and has become an important tool of the Chinese government to suppress dissent.  Even if China amends its criminal laws to be more in line with international standards, as long as it keeps RETL, the CCP will always have a way to suppress those individuals it deems a threat to its rule.  Individuals like Liu Xiaobo. 

But Liu’s current trouble stems from a document he helped author in late 2008 known as “Charter 08.”  Modeled after Charter 77, the document that sparked the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, Charter 08, called for greater human rights in China, the end of one-party rule and an independent legal system.  The morning that Charter 08 was to be posted to the internet, Liu was detained by police.  Liu was eventually arrested, tried and in December 2009, sentenced to a harsh term of 11 years.  In general, the average dissident sentence in China is between 3 and 5 years. 

Given Liu’s current imprisonment doe this Nobel Peace Prize even matter?  Most certainly.  First, it brings attention to the weakness of the current Chinese regime. While most news stories in the Western press discuss China’s growing economic might and its increased military muscle and portray a China that is sure to achieve global dominance, Liu represents the very real flip-side of that story – a communist party that is increasingly fearful of any threats to its authority and that in many ways is retaining one-party rule on a shoe-string.  Second, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu after vigorous protest and threats from the Chinese government.  In fact, the Chinese government’s response has been shockingly quick – issuing a statement that Liu is a criminal and awarding him the prize is in contravention to the mission of the Nobel Committee.  Given that many governments have shirked from confronting China on its recent suppression of rights activists for fear of upsetting trade ties, the Nobel Committee’s action reflects its commitment to human rights and acknowledges the importance of human rights in Western diplomacy. 

But most importantly, the Nobel Committee’s actions will bring greater attention to Liu within China.  Although famous internationally, with media and internet censorship domestically, many Chinese are unfamiliar with Liu and his quest for greater human rights.  While censorship of the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Liu will surely exist in China, because this news is so huge, stories will slip through the Great Firewall, and those Chinese with access to the internet will learn more of Liu’s work and the push for human rights in China. 

But the award does not come lightly.  If history is a guide, the Chinese government will likely increase repression on other rights activists in China in the immediate aftermath and abuse of Liu in prison is a very real possibility. 

And from the White House and last Year’s Noble Peace Prize Winner:                                          

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary

______________________________________________________________________________

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                            October 8, 2010

Statement by the President on the Awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo 

I welcome the Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Mr. Liu Xiaobo.  Last year, I noted that so many others who have received the award had sacrificed so much more than I.  That list now includes Mr. Liu, who has sacrificed his freedom for his beliefs.  By granting the prize to Mr. Liu, the Nobel Committee has chosen someone who has been an eloquent and courageous spokesman for the advance of universal values through peaceful and non-violent means, including his support for democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. 

As I said last year in Oslo, even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries, America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal to all human beings.  Over the last 30 years, China has made dramatic progress in economic reform and improving the lives of its people, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty.  But this award reminds us that political reform has not kept pace, and that the basic human rights of every man, woman and child must be respected.  We call on the Chinese government to release Mr. Liu as soon as possible.

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