“I hope to be the last victim of China’s endless literary inquisition.”
Today marks four years since Oslo’s City Hall reverberated with these words of Liu Xiaobo, along with his calm but fierce defense of the freedom of expression and his bedrock belief that freedom will someday come to China. As Swedish actress Liv Ullman read Liu’s essay “I Have No Enemies,” which he had penned to read at his sentencing in December 2009, and as Nobel Peace Prize Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland evocatively placed Liu’s Nobel medal on an empty chair, it felt for a few hours as if all of those in China struggling to ensure their rights had won a global victory.
But as Liu Xiaobo endures prison, roughly halfway through his 11-year sentence for allegedly “inciting subversion of state power,” it is clear Beijing’s leadership has not tempered its zeal for punishing peaceful critics. Poets, painters, and publishers, editors and journalists, scholars, activists, and ordinary citizens speaking their minds peacefully: in recent years many have been detained and some harshly punished for articulating their views. The term “inquisition” seems appropriate for its connotations of anachronistic realities that persist despite the radical socioeconomic transformation of China and the relative security its leadership enjoys.
The new leadership in Beijing has its own aspirations, promising to make the “China dream” a reality, and to return China to its rightful place on the world stage. But these hardly mask the deeper drive of President Xi Jinping to reinforce the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on power. As persecution inside the country worsens to a level unseen since the 1990s, Chinese diplomatic rhetoric cautioning against “interference in internal affairs” has become progressively louder, leading many of the governments that sent representatives to Oslo that day to mute their concerns. But that silence stunts the prospects for China becoming what many inside and outside want it to be: a country whose stability is the product of the real rule of law and of respect for people and their ideas.
And so today, on International Human Rights Day and the fourth anniversary of Liu’s Nobel win, we would all do well to recall Liu’s words that resounded in Oslo, and those that his wife Liu Xia, offered up in 2013 during a brief respite from house arrest, where she remains: “I tell myself to stand straight, don’t be afraid.”