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The Prize China Doesn't Want to Win

Giving Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize would be a defeat for the government in Beijing -- and a victory for human rights everywhere.

Published in: Foreign Policy

Most international awards are eagerly coveted by the Chinese government, but there are exceptions. One of the names being mentioned for the Nobel Peace Prize this year is Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese writer and political essayist currently serving an 11-year prison term for his crusading views. He is one of China's most famous dissidents, known for his unflinching advocacy for free expression, human rights, and democracy over two decades. In 2009, he was charged with "incitement to subvert state power and overthrow the socialist system" as a result of his role in drafting "Charter 08," a political manifesto calling for gradual political reforms in China, and for authoring several other online essays critical of the government published between 2005 and 2007.

Born in 1955 in the northeastern industrial city of Changchun, Liu received a degree in literature from Jilin University and moved to Beijing to continue his studies. After obtaining a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Beijing Normal University, he started teaching there as a lecturer. In late 1988 he became a visiting scholar at Columbia University, but cut short his stay to participate in the 1989 Chinese democracy movement. In the early hours of June 4, 1989, as the People's Liberation Army rolled into Beijing and closed in on the remaining students in Tiananmen Square, Liu acted as a negotiator between the students and the troops, ultimately brokering a deal that allowed many students to avoid the bloodshed witnessed in other parts of the capital.

Labeled by the government as a "ringleader" and a "black hand" of the student movement, Liu was arrested on June 6 and spent 18 months in Qincheng Prison on charges of "counterrevolution." He was ultimately released in January 1991, but barred from teaching or holding any academic position. He continued to write essays in favor of freedom of expression and human rights, gaining a national and international following as "China's conscience" for his unflinching, selfless, and peaceful advocacy for his ideals. In 1995 he was placed under house arrest and later sentenced to three years of "re-education through labor" for a series of essays criticizing the government. Upon his release in October 1999, Liu continued to write critical essays, mostly published overseas but widely circulated inside China.

Then on Dec. 8, 2008, Liu was arrested again. It was the eve of Human Rights Day, the date that the more than 300 original Chinese signatories had chosen for the publication of Charter 08.

Charter 08 was consciously modeled after Charter 77, the pathbreaking document published in 1977 in which Czech and Slovak intellectuals courageously pledged "to strive individually and collectively for respect for human and civil rights in our country and throughout the world." It called for an end to the Communist Party's one-party rule and the establishment of a system based on human rights, the rule of law, and democracy in the former state of Czechoslovakia. Liu is sometimes called the Vaclav Havel of China.

"The Chinese people," wrote the Charter 08 signatories, "include many who see clearly that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values."

Charter 08, drafted over several months, did not come to the attention of Chinese authorities until several days before it was to be released. After Liu's arrest, a large-scale coordinated police operation was launched to "root out the organizers" and prevent the distribution of Charter 08. In the following weeks and months, the police interviewed each of the 303 initial signatories, among them writers, lawyers, journalists, academics, former party members, and ordinary citizens, stressing that the Chinese authorities thought that Charter 08 was "different" from earlier dissident statements and "a fairly grave matter."

The Chinese government may have been initially worried about a possible global outcry over the arrest of the country's most famous dissident. However, the international diplomatic response was at best muted.

Meanwhile, in February 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged on the eve of a visit to Beijing that the United States would not let human rights concerns "interfere" with other important aspects of the U.S.-China relationship.

On June 23, 2009, Liu was formally arrested and transferred to Beijing's main detention center, Beikan. The trial, which took less than two hours, was held on Dec. 23, and Liu's sentence -- the longest given for charges of "inciting subversion" since that crime was included in the Chinese criminal code in 1996 -- was announced on Christmas Day, when much of the foreign press corps was on vacation, in an apparent attempt to minimize international coverage.

During Liu's trial, the government argued that Liu had "exceeded" the limits of freedom of expression by authoring essays that had "openly slander[ed] and incite[d] others to overthrow our country's state power." The appeals court that upheld the original 11-year sentence wrote, "Furthermore, the crime was committed over a long period of time, and the subjective malice was immense. The published articles were widely linked, reproduced, and viewed, spreading vile influence. He is a major criminal offender and should be given severe punishment according to the law."

In fact, in the nine essays that the prosecution singled out, Liu consistently defended the idea that political change could only be gradual and peaceful. Liu stressed in the court statement he prepared but was never allowed to deliver, "in the past two decades ... I have always expressed the view that China's political reforms should be gradual, peaceful, orderly, and controlled. I have also consistently opposed quick one-leap radical reforms, and even more so violent revolution."

Liu's lawyers crafted legal arguments for his defense along these lines, invoking Chinese legal provisions and international standards on freedom of expression. The court's response consisted of one line at the end of the judgment: "There is insufficient reasoning in the defense's appeal statement by Liu's Xiaobo's counsel; therefore, this court does not accept the arguments."

(The nine essays listed by the prosecution as evidence, along with all the legal documents from Liu's trial, are available on the site of China Rights Forum, an online and print magazine published by the New York-based advocacy group Human Rights in China.)    

The trial provided a thin veneer of legality to a political decision made about Liu in advance by the Chinese leadership. Liu himself was clear-eyed about the outcome: "I have long been aware that when an independent intellectual stands up to an autocratic state, step one toward freedom is often a step into prison," he wrote after his arrest. "Now I am taking that step; and true freedom is that much nearer."

Liu is the most famous of countless Chinese government critics languishing in prison for peacefully expressing their views. He falls squarely into the Nobel Peace Prize tradition of honoring human rights activists who are calling for peaceful political reform. Kim Dae-jung, Lech Walesa, and Aung San Suu Kyi are but a few previous such winners.

If Liu were to win, the most positive effect would be a groundswell of interest in Charter 08 and Liu's writings in China itself. Whereas the writings of dissidents have so far been limited to the relatively small circles of Chinese citizens who know how to circumvent Beijing's extensive Internet censorship, the Nobel Prize would confer to Liu an instant notoriety that would make it impossible to prevent the mass diffusion of Charter 08 and Liu's other writings.

As the Chinese leadership seemed to have feared when it decided to jail Liu, many among the larger Chinese public -- including party and government officials -- might recognize themselves in the propositions advanced by Charter 08.

Dignitaries including Havel himself have urged the Nobel Committee to award Liu this year's peace prize. Despite the Chinese government's warning that giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu would be "totally wrong," history might judge otherwise.

Nicholas Bequelin is a senior researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.

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