Writings – Essays – Liu Xiaobo’s Incarceration


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This essay was published

in The Globe and Mail

October, 2010

Liu Xiaobo’s Incarceration

Shortly after being sentenced to 11 years in prison for subversion in 2009, Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo issued a statement through his lawyer. “For an intellectual thirsty for freedom in a dictatorial country, prison is the very first threshold,” he said. “Now I have stepped over the threshold, and freedom is near.”

Mr. Liu is among the first to have been honoured with a Nobel Peace Prize while incarcerated. He won’t likely be flying to Oslo to make a speech in December, either.

Awarding him the prize Friday couldn’t have been easy for the Nobel committee. The ruling Chinese Communist Party – the dictatorship in question – doesn’t just bully its own people at home and abroad. It also applies blunt pressure to any country that challenges its transparent hypocrisies and blatant abuses.

Sure enough, Norway, which was warned against giving Mr. Liu the prize, was immediately told that its relations with China had been damaged. Authorities in Beijing went into internal damage-control mode, blacking out the news and jamming up the Internet. Reports said the Communist leadership was “furious,” but “humiliated” was surely closer to the truth.

Awarding the Nobel to Mr. Liu, 54, a veteran of Chinese penal institutions, was remarkable on three levels. It was just, and in contrast to giving the prize to Barack Obama last year for yet-to-be-accomplished peaceable deeds, it was concrete: acclaiming both a courageous individual and his worthy actions and ideas.

There should be no separation of the two. Charter 08, the document authored by Mr. Liu, which got him thrown into prison before it was even released, should be celebrated and studied. It is modelled on Vaclav Havel’s Czech Charter 77, and is an equally eloquent declaration that “Chinese citizens are increasingly and more clearly recognizing that freedom, equality and human rights are universal common values shared by all humankind.”

A related reason to laud this award concerns our own culpability in the way China treats its citizens. Charter 08 was drafted in the wake of the minimal disquietude and lack of outrage displayed by the international community at the oppression that encased the Olympic Games like a not-so-invisible dome.

While there was no direct link between the “success” of the Beijing Games and the drafting of the charter, it did seem that activists and intellectuals felt pressure to remind the rest of us of what China is really like, if you happen to live there and believe the event’s slogan “One World One Dream” to be applicable elsewhere.

The world looked studiously away in August of 2008, in order to enjoy the dream of sporting harmony. Two years later, the Nobel committee wants to put a few eyes back on the concept – one world of human rights, one definition of freedom.

Last month, at the Tokyo congress of International PEN, the association of writers, PEN American Center president Kwame Anthony Appiah told an audience that awarding Mr. Liu the prize would remind us that “history is on freedom’s side.” He linked Mr. Liu with Martin Luther King, who wrote his famous letter from a Birmingham jail the year before he was awarded the Nobel.

With due respect to the personal struggles of Dr. King, here is a grim thought about what may be ahead for the 2010 laureate: Mr. Liu won’t only be missing the awards ceremony in Oslo; he might not see the outside of a prison cell for the better part of a decade. Are the rest of us going to stand for this?

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