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Free Liu Xiaobo

The case of Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s best known human-rights activists, highlights the hollowness of the Chinese government’s sunny rhetoric on respect for rule of law.

On June 23, the Chinese government laid highly-dubious “subversion” charges against Mr. Liu after detaining him illegally for more than six months. His arrest for “alleged agitation activities aimed at subversion of the government and overthrowing of the socialist system” could land him in prison for up to 15 years.

Mr. Liu’s arrest marked the nadir of a month already-marred by other official moves which undermine rule of law and respect for human rights in China. The Chinese government intensified its repression against the country’s legal profession by effectively disbarring at least 18 leading civil-rights lawyers on June 1. Ten days later, it presented a wildly sanitized view of its human-rights record at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review.

Chinese police hauled away Liu, a writer, former Beijing Normal University professor, the director of the independent Chinese PEN Center and a veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests on Dec. 8, 2008. Mr. Liu’s detention came just hours after the circulation of an online petition he helped organize which calls for greater development of human rights and reform of China’s one-party political system. The 303 original signers of the petition, Charter ’08, represent a cross-section of China’s intelligentsia and include dissidents, scholars, journalists and artists. Charter ’08 has since circulated widely online and accumulated more than 8,000 signatures nationwide.

For more than six months, Chinese police held Mr. Liu incommunicado and in violation of Chinese law, without access to legal counsel under a form of detention called “residential surveillance” at an undisclosed location in Beijing. That move, according to Mr. Liu’s lawyer, Mo Shaoping, violated requirements that “residential surveillance” detainees be confined at their own homes. Chinese police have also detained - and subsequently released - numerous other Charter ’08 signatories including Shanghai human rights lawyer Zheng Enchong, Hangzhou-based dissident scholar Wen Kejian and Hainan scholar Qin Geng.

Why should Mr. Liu be charged for actions the Chinese government periodically insists are within the boundaries of the law? After all, Charter ’08’s affirmation that “freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government is the fundamental framework for protecting these values” echoes the Chinese government’s own human-rights rhetoric. China’s Constitution guarantees the freedoms of expression, assembly, and religion, and states that, “The state respects and preserves human rights.” And on April 13, 2009, the Chinese government issued its first ever National Human Rights Action Plan which states that “The Chinese government unswervingly pushes forward the cause of human rights in China.”

So why does Mr. Liu’s reality stand in such stark contrast to the government’s rhetoric? Because he and Charter ’08 by their very existence make that contrast painfully clear, and in doing so thoughtfully and peacefully challenge the legitimacy of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. The document demonstrates that at least a wide cross section of the intelligentsia the government had long assumed it had bought, bullied or bludgeoned into submission is questioning the trade-off of economic development at the expense of fundamental human rights. Consciously modeled on Charter ’77, a document issued in 1977 by dissidents in the then-Czechoslovakia, Charter ’08 declares that the status quo is unacceptable and unsustainable.

The Chinese government’s response to Charter ’08 – harassment, intimidation and arrest of perceived dissidents – may well backfire. As the global economic crisis takes its toll on China, the government is already grappling with rising unemployment, a rising number of protests by aggrieved workers and deepening public cynicism about its capacity to effectively respond to these challenges. Adequately addressing these issues requires the Chinese government to listen and respond to thoughtful dissenting voices of Liu Xiaobo and others rather than silence them.

The international community’s ability to effectively partner with China to tackle crucial issues ranging from global warming and food safety to resolution of trade and investment disputes hinges on mutual respect for rule of law and human rights. The international community can and should demonstrate its concern for those values – and the importance of its relationship with China—by demanding the immediate release of Liu Xiaobo.

Phelim Kine is an Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.

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