Liu Xiaobo is an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, a 54-year-old former university professor imprisoned in 2009 on "subversion" charges for his involvement with Charter '08, a political manifesto calling for gradual political reforms in China. Liu was also jailed in 1989 for his role in the Tiananmen Square protests and again in 1996 for criticizing China's policy toward Taiwan and the Dalai Lama. Human Rights Watch honored Liu Xiaobo with the 2010 Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism for his fearless commitment to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly in China.
According to the Nobel Committee, the 2010 Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo "for his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China." Liu Xiaobo 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, Shirin Ebadi and Aung San Suu Kyi are but a few previous such winners.
There has been little coverage in Chinese media, save for the Foreign Ministry response that: "Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who has been sentenced by Chinese judicial departments for violating Chinese law." The official statement added that the award "profanes the Nobel Peace Prize."
Censors blocked TV broadcasts, web pages, and text messages relating to Liu Xiaobo and the Nobel. Chinese journalists have been told to report only on the basis of the official statement. Human rights activists in China were celebrating in the hopes that the award will bring international attention and support to reform efforts.
Liu's wife, Liu Xia, has reportedly been placed under house arrest. Earlier, she was ordered to leave her home in Beijing by plainclothes police officers who said they wanted to take her to Jinzhou, where her husband is imprisoned, almost 500 km from Beijing. She told Reuters news agency, "They want to distance me from the media." She released a statement urging the government to free Liu Xiaobo: "As the [Nobel] Committee recognized, China's new status in the world comes with increased responsibility. China should embrace this responsibility, have pride in his selection, and release him from prison."
The prize is likely to prompt a groundswell of interest in Charter '08. Many ordinary Chinese people, government employees, party cadres, and students are going to want to know who Liu Xiaobo is and why he was sentenced to prison. The writings of dissidents have so far been limited to those Chinese who know how to circumvent Beijing's extensive Internet censorship. But the Nobel Prize will confer an instant notoriety that will make it challenging for Beijing to control the spread of Charter '08 and Liu's other writings, though they will no doubt keep trying.
Liu Xiaobo has emphasized the need for Chinese to demand reform, telling the New Yorker: "Western countries are asking the Chinese government to fulfill its promises to improve the human-rights situation, but if there's no voice from inside the country, then the government will say, 'It's only a request from abroad; the domestic population doesn't demand it.' I want to show that it's not only the hope of the international community, but also the hope of the Chinese people to improve their human-rights situation."
Some activists, including Liu's lawyer, fear the immediate response may be to jail other dissidents to send the message that dissent is unacceptable.
But it's likely to trigger a debate between government hardliners and those who favor a more moderate approach. A major concern for the Chinese leadership will be the tensions at the top over whether it was a mistake to jail him in the first place. The hardliners decided to make an example of Liu Xiaobo, who was China's most famous dissident and had been somewhat tolerated (under surveillance), by sentencing him to the longest known prison term for "inciting subversion" since the crime was put on the book in 1996. Now this decision has backfired in spectacular terms, just as China is coming out on the international stage. It's likely that officials such as Xi Jinping and Li Kejiang, due to take over the leadership in 2012, will think seriously about freeing Liu before his imprisonment does more damage.
Liu is the most famous of numerous Chinese government critics languishing in prison for peacefully expressing their views.
Charter '08, which urges putting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law at the core of the Chinese political system, was signed by more than 300 people from a cross-section of society, and by several prominent figures including retired party officials, former newspaper editors, members of the legal profession, and human rights defenders. "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."
The charter was published on December 10, 2008, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Liu Xiaobo was arrested on December 8.
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."
Charter '08 was consciously modeled after Charter 77, the path-breaking 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."
The Chinese Communist Party continues its monopoly on political power and, despite legal system reforms, requires judicial institutions to toe the party line. Citizens face significant limits on freedom of expression, association, and religion; government surveillance and censoring of internet communications is far reaching. While China's international profile and economic clout continue to grow, it is also drawing increasing international scrutiny for a foreign policy that fails to prioritize civil and political rights.
China's growing number of right activists paid a high price in 2009 for their willingness to continue to push for greater civil and human rights. Police surveillance and monitoring of NGOs, critical intellectuals, dissidents, and civil rights lawyers, often coupled with threats, warnings, or periods of house arrest, continued unabated. The government took unprecedented measures against several high profile activists whose activities they had previously treated less harshly. Chinese security forces continue to pressure HIV/AIDS activist organizations to maintain low public profiles.
The country's journalists, bloggers, and estimated 338 million internet users are subject to the arbitrary dictates of state censors.
There has been slow progress in rights awareness and judicial professionalization in China, but the government continues to dominate the legal system. Judicial personnel are asked to subordinate the demands of the law to maintenance of social stability and elimination of challenges to the party.
China's constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government restricts religious expression to government-registered temples, monasteries, mosques, and churches. The Chinese government considers all unregistered religious organizations, including Protestant "house churches," illegal; members risk fines and criminal prosecution. It also continues to designate certain groups as "evil cults," including the Falun Gong, and regularly cracks down on followers. There are no publicly available data about how many people are serving prison or reeducation-through-labor sentences for practicing their religion outside of state-sanctioned channels.
The Tibet Autonomous Region and the adjacent Tibetan autonomous areas in Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan provinces remain tense, closely monitored, and saturated with troops long after the eruption of protests in the region in March 2008. Two Tibetans were executed in 2009 for their involvement in the 2008 protests. At this writing, foreigners' access to Tibet remains tightly constrained.