This writer remembers clearly a 20th century political theory class at university, some 40 years ago. It was just after San Francisco’s “Summer of Love” and well into the time of American anti-Vietnam War protests, student revolts in Paris and Berlin, at the University of Cape Town, and even China’s Cultural Revolution and Mao’s Little Red Book. It was the international baby-boomer generation that thought it could – and would – change the world.
On that day, the focus was on Mao Zedong’s political ideology. The professor drew a kind of political theory equation on the blackboard:
30 million deaths = worth the creation of China’s new world?
The implication of that equation, of course, was that some of the broken eggs were clearly worth it to open the way for the new omelette that was on the way. We were witnesses, no, we were in the advance guard, for the forging of a new society – and a newer, better world.
Now, 40 years on, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee has given its stamp of approval to someone from China. But the recipient is a prisoner, Liu Xiaobo, rather than a senior member of the Communist Party Central Committee, or one of the country’s go-go entrepreneurs or economic managers. And this year’s recipient will almost certainly be unable to accept his award because of his incarceration.
For decades, Liu has been a tireless literary critic, political essayist, polemicist and advocate for democratic values. In response, the government has repeatedly put him in jail. This time around he’s in the midst of an 11-year sentence for subversion. For its part, by contrast, the Nobel Committee has explained that the award recognizes Liu’s “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”.
Somewhat surprisingly, this appears to be one of the few times an individual has been honoured while actually under arrest or in prison – Burmese political activist Aung San Suu Kyi was honoured in 1991 and German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky won his prize way back in 1935. The late Albert Luthuli was certainly being harassed and chivvied at practically every turn, though he was not actually under arrest at the time of his award.
Watch: Al Jazeera’s Inside Story on Liu Xiaobo and what Alfred Nobel wanted
To some, Liu’s award seems a metaphorical shot across China’s bow – now that China’s increasingly emboldened leadership appears to be showing an increasing intolerance for domestic dissent, and as the country’s growing posture gives rise to concerns abroad that a muscular diplomacy is going hand-in-hand with the nation’s economic juggernaut. In fact, even before the award was even announced, a Chinese official pre-emptively warned the Norwegian awards committee that giving Liu one of their medals, thereby focusing the world’s attention on Chinese human rights issues could have negative effects on Norwegian-Chinese relations.
In retrospect, now that Liu has been honoured, this seems to have been a counterproductive way for China to make its weight felt on the question. In fact, when the committee announced the award, while they commended China for bringing hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, they also publicly chastised it for ignoring the rights guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution, as well as human rights protections set out in various international conventions that China has already ratified.
Thus the Peace Prize committee said in its announcement, “In practice, these freedoms have proved to be distinctly curtailed for China’s citizens” and that “China’s new status must entail increased responsibility”. The committee went on to say, attempting to pre-empt China’s frequent criticism that the west insists on imposing western values on China’s society, that “The campaign to establish universal human rights also in China is being waged by many Chinese, both in China itself and abroad. Through the severe punishment meted out to him, Liu has become the foremost symbol of this wide-ranging struggle for human rights in China.”
In one of the least surprising developments in international relations in recent years, as soon as the award was announced, the Chinese foreign ministry called it a “desecration” of the peace prize and the Chinese government summoned Norway’s ambassador in Beijing so it could protest the award. Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu then announced, “The Nobel Committee giving the peace prize to such a person runs completely contrary to the aims of the prize. Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who has been sentenced by Chinese judicial departments for violating Chinese law.” Well, technically, that’s true, although hardly the point of the exercise.
After the announcement, it was apparently virtually impossible to find much about the award – or Liu – in the local Chinese press, on China’s main Internet portals and broadcasts on CNN about the event were blocked out in China as well. Cellphone users in China said they couldn’t send an SMS on Liu – something or somebody kept getting in the way. Nonetheless, users of the microblog Sina.com managed to post more than 6,000 comments about the prize within an hour of its announcement, according to foreign press reports.
Not surprisingly, while Cuba’s government denounced the award, Liu’s selection has triggered numerous international calls for Liu’s release from international leaders. For example, Barack Obama, last year’s Peace Prize recipient, urged the Chinese to free Liu from jail as soon as possible, adding that China’s political reforms had not kept up with the country’s economic expansion. And the Dalai Lama, the 1989 Peace Prize award winner commented that “future generations of Chinese will be able to enjoy the fruits of the efforts that the current Chinese citizens are making towards responsible governance.”
While it is unlikely Liu will hear very much, very soon about his award, observers say the prize can be a major psychological lift for the country’s reform movement. Liu has been blacklisted from academia, his works cannot be published in China and his activism reaches back to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests when he carried out a hunger strike and then successfully negotiated the retreat of demonstrators while soldiers watched. Gao Yu, a journalist and fellow dissident, told reporters that had it not been for Liu’s efforts “and the others to broker a peaceful withdrawal from the square, Tiananmen Square would have been a field of blood on 4 June.”
Photo: Tienanmen Square, 4th of June 1989.
Before Tiananmen, Liu was one of the first of his generation to return to university after the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976 had run its course. During the Cultural Revolution, many schools were closed. Teachers, intellectuals and students were frequently forcibly rusticated to remote locations. Once Liu had finally been able to return to and graduate from Jilin University, he entered the Beijing Normal University for his doctorate and then taught there as well. By the mid-1980s he had become prominent for lectures and literary criticism that insisted on an honest accounting of the excesses carried out in Mao’s name or at his order.
Liu happened to be out of the country when hundreds of Chinese students initiated their Tiananmen Square protest over corruption and for democratic change. Liu saddled up for a return, but then hesitated and even considered remaining abroad. In the end, however, he returned home.
When it became clear the military was ready to clear the square with force, Liu and three others carried out a three-day hunger strike to gain the trust of the striking students and then, in the early morning of 4 June, as the army was tightening its cordon around the square, Liu and the others negotiated with military commissars to give the protesters a chance to exit the square. In the aftermath of the protest, Liu was arrested and fingered as the Svengali behind what the government called a counter-revolutionary rebellion.
Eventually, released from prison in 1991, Liu lost his teaching position, but started right up with his protests again. He helped craft petitions in support of democracy, human rights and a reassessment of government statements on Tiananmen. Just as certainly, his activism earned him yet another arrest. Arrested in 1995, he was sent off to a labour camp for writing essays that, yet again, criticised the government and called for an end to official corruption. Some people just can’t resist.
Zhang Zuhua, a former Communist Youth League official who later played a pivotal role with Liu in drafting yet another petition, Charter ’08, said of Liu, “While others were researching the same problems from a theoretical or policy standpoint, he [Liu] was actively protesting and actually doing things.”
When Liu came out of prison in 1999, the Internet had started to reshape Chinese public discourse (more than 400 million Chinese now have access to the Internet). Liu turned into a frequent commentator on international Internet websites, calling the Internet “God’s gift to China”. As so many others have done over the past two centuries, he drew inspiration from the US Constitution and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.
Liu’s most recent arrest happened in December 2008, just before Charter ‘08 started to circulate on the Internet. This petition had called for the government to guarantee civil liberties, judicial independence and political reforms that would eventually end the Communist Party’s lock on political power. As his wife told foreign journalists, “For all these years, Liu Xiaobo has persevered in telling the truth about China and because of this, for the fourth time, he has lost his personal freedom.”
In Charter ‘08’s brief life on the Internet, it gathered some 10,000 signatures before censors shut it down. The government then carried out an Internet crackdown, shutting down scores of blogs, interrogating Charter ‘08’s first 300 signatories and then holding Liu virtually incommunicado for half a year before his arrest.
In his most recent trial, the Chinese government’s verdict said Charter ’08 and six other essays Liu had written had exceeded Chinese citizens’ rights to free expression, “openly slandering and inciting others to overthrow our country’s state power”. Liu argued in reply that he was just advocating a gradual and non-violent change in governance, using words that could have come from a political dissident virtually anywhere in the world for the past 200 years.
Liu said: “I firmly believe that China’s political progress will never stop, and I’m full of optimistic expectations of freedom coming to China in the future, because no force can block the human desire for freedom. China will eventually become a country of rule of law in which human rights are supreme. I’m also looking forward to such progress being reflected in the trial of this case, and look forward to the full court’s just verdict ? one that can stand the test of history.”
Liu’s prize, now, given his decades of political protest, seems to represent something of a historical tidying up and making up lost ground and lost time, perhaps even a kind of apology for the Nobel committee’s reluctance to acknowledge the importance of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement and its impact on the evolution of China since.
On occasion too, Peace Prize selectors seem to have skirted around the big stories when they could have made a big difference with inspired choices. Instead, they have often just rounded up the usual suspects as the Red Cross and the UN and its various bodies have been picked frequently. Moreover, amid the carnage and violence of World Wars I and II, the committee made no awards at all for the periods 1914-17 and 1939-44. Were there no voices trying to end the wars, succour refugees or help the imprisoned in all those years?
We should be grateful the committee has reached out to turn the spotlight, finally, on Liu Xiaobo. In that sense, perhaps we should consider this award to be one shared, emotionally at least, with that extraordinarily brave, still-anonymous man, who, “armed” only with two shopping bags, tried his best to stop those People’s Liberation Army tanks from entering Tiananmen Square and bringing to a definitive conclusion the student protests in the “Square of Heavenly Peace”. DM
Just as we are publishing this story, the news came of Liu’s wife’s house arrest. For more, read The New York Times, The New York Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Post, The Economist, the Guardian, AP, and Time. A critic of the award, Ronald Krebs points out negatives of the award in a Washington Post column. The Chinese government criticises the award in the China Daily, China Daily. And Cuba criticises the award in News24. For more on the unknown man with the shopping bags, go to PBS, the Times, and The New York Times. For more bio on Liu see Wikipedia.
Liu’s photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
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