A life in truth
08 Oct 2010

Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 2010, Liu Xiaobo is treated as a subversive criminal in China, currently serving an 11-year sentence for incitement to subvert state power. Lauren Davis reports

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 2010 to Liu Xiaobo “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”.

“In the long run, it’s a good thing,” says Rebecca MacKinnon, expert on internet censorship in China and fellow at the New America Foundation. “It shows that people who stand up for their beliefs will not simply disappear into prison to be forgotten by the world. The tens of thousands who signed Charter 08, some of whom were questioned by police or disciplined by employers for having done so, will be encouraged that they’re on the right side of history and that their risk wasn’t a wasted effort.”

Now 54, Liu was a young university professor at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. He left his post at Columbia University to join the pro-democracy movement in Beijing, and held a hunger strike in support of the students.  As an advocate for non-violent activism, he disarmed a group of workers who had arrived with guns to defend the protesters, and helped to evacuate the square on the last day of the demonstrations, preventing further bloodshed. Liu was arrested for his involvement in the protests, and spent two years in prison.

After criticising China’s one-party system and calling for dialogue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama of Tibet, Liu was sentenced to three years of “re-education through labour” in 1996. He had only recently married Liu Xia, who was not allowed to visit him for 18 months because they had not managed to obtain a marriage certificate before his imprisonment. Eventually, their lawyer won them dispensation to marry in the labour camp.

In 2004, Liu Xiaobo wrote an essay attacking the use of “subversion” charges to censor, and ultimately silence, journalists and activists. Following the essay’s publication, Liu’s telephone lines and internet connections were blocked.

After nearly 20 years of activism came Liu’s most famous contribution to the campaign against human rights abuses — and the one for which he has been punished most severely — Charter 08. The manifesto, published on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, called for reform and democracy in China, and was signed by 303 Chinese intellectuals.

On 9 December, the night before the document’s release, police arrested Liu at his home in Beijing. They confiscated his computer and other materials from the campaign. He was held in detention with no outside communication until 31 December, when his wife was finally allowed to visit him.

After Liu’s arrest, almost all of the original signatories were interrogated in an attempt to gather evidence against him, but his trial lasted only a day.

While the award will highlight the increasingly harsh treatment of dissidents in China and support the struggle for freedom of speech, there are fears that international support for human rights activists may lead to a backlash.

Isabel Hilton, leading expert on China and trustee of Free Word, told Index: “Judging by the government’s response, it is not going to make Liu Xiaobo’s life any easier, but when the history of free expression and freedom of ideas is written, he and the other signatories of Charter 08 will be remembered as courageous citizens who sought the best for their country.”

Join PEN America’s campaign for Liu Xiaobo’s release here.

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