Ten years ago, on 8 October 2010, Liu Xiaobo became the first Chinese citizen to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. For a regime that was still keen to burnish its international reputation following its country’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government should have celebrated Liu Xiaobo’s success and made every effort to ensure that Liu could be presented with the award in person at the ceremony that was held in Oslo on 10 December 2010.
Instead, Liu Xiaobo languished in prison, and his award placed on an empty chair that symbolised his absence. In 2008, Liu was detained and later sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment for having dared to peacefully call for a future where his fellow citizens could enjoy the basic freedoms that he was ultimately denied.
Liu’s appalling treatment by his own government ended in his premature death under police guard while he was in hospital on medical parole in 2017, making him the first Nobel Peace Prize Laureate to have died in custody since Carl von Ossietzky died in a hospital bed while under gestapo surveillance in 1938. It is a parallel that should cause grave concern to any government that claims to represent the interests of its citizenry.
Liu Xiaobo lived as a poet, literary critic, scholar, and human rights activist. Liu was born into a family of intellectuals, and in 1977 he was among the first cohort of Chinese students to sit college entrance exams in over a decade following the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. He later worked as an academic and writer, quickly gaining a reputation for his caustic literary critiques of fellow Chinese intellectuals.
Liu emerged as a key member of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement and he was responsible for saving thousands of lives by convincing demonstrators to leave Tiananmen Square before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) oversaw the brutal massacre of many of those remaining.
Despite the ever-present risk of persecution by the Chinese government, Liu remained defiant in the face of overwhelming state power. Arrested and detained for his role in the protest movement just days after the Tiananmen Square massacre, on his release he continued to use his writing to peacefully call for human rights and democratic reform. When government authorities attempted to silence him by banning the publication of his writing, he continued his work, publishing his writing in Hong Kong, Taiwan and other countries.
Even when imprisoned, the authorities could not suppress Liu Xiaobo’s spirit. In 1996, while Liu was serving a three-year sentence in a forced labour camp, he married Liu Xia, a celebrated poet and artist who now lives safely outside China after having endured years of house-arrest by the Chinese government.
In 2008, the year of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Liu Xiaobo helped to draft Charter 08, a manifesto that called for the democratic reform of China’s political system and the promotion of basic human rights for its citizens. It was inspired by Charter 77, a document drafted by dissident intellectuals, including Václav Havel, that called for an end to the pro-Soviet leadership in his country, Czechoslovakia, and restoration of democratic rights. Just two days before Charter 08 was due to be published on 10 December 2008 to mark Human Rights Day, Liu Xiaobo was detained by the Chinese government and denied freedom for the remainder of his life.
Despite Liu Xiaobo’s untimely death, the Chinese government has failed in its efforts to silence him and the values he embodied. Today, Liu’s ideas continue to live through his writing, inspiring countless others in China and around the world to imagine for a future free from oppression.
Liu Xiaobo was an active member of PEN, an international community of writers dedicated to the protection of writers and the promotion of free expression. He was a founding member and former president of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre; whose membership includes writers within China and among the diaspora who continue to campaign tirelessly for the freedoms that Liu Xiaobo died for. Over a dozen of its members are currently detained in China, with many more continuing to face harassment and other forms of persecution inside China and beyond its borders.
To mark the tenth anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”, PEN International is holding a campaign to highlight Liu Xiaobo’s selfless courage, while also shining a light on four writers currently being persecuted by the Chinese government.
These writers include the lifelong pro-democracy activist Qin Yongmin, who is currently serving a 13 year prison sentence, and who will have spent 36 years in prison by the time of his scheduled release; Kunchok Tsephel, a Tibetan writer and co-founder of the first website dedicated to the promotion of Tibetan literature in China, who was imprisoned as part of a sweeping crackdown on Tibetan intellectuals that took place in 2009; Swedish writer and publisher Gui Minhai who was abducted by Chinese government agents while he was in Thailand and was then sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment on spurious intelligence charges; and Yang Hengjun, an Australian writer and political commentator, who was detained by security services while visiting China and now faces a potential death penalty on espionage charges. When considered together, these emblematic cases illustrate the extent that the Chinese government’s assault on free expression has resulted in the persecution of writers across China.
The extent to which the Chinese government has self-servingly prioritised control of public discourse over its citizens’ right to peaceful expression has created a climate of repression that impacts every aspect of society across China. The resulting human cost is perhaps most starkly illustrated by the Chinese government’s treatment of Dr Li Wenliang, who was one of the first to sound the alarm about the dangers posed by a novel coronavirus outbreak that has since become a global pandemic. Instead of heeding his warning, government authorities initially sought to silence him, forcing him to sign a letter that accused him of “making false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order”. On 7 February 2020, Dr Li Wenliang died from the virus.
The importance of freedom of expression in China is best expressed in Liu Xiaobo’s own words: “Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.”
On the ten-year anniversary of Liu Xiaobo’s awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize, PEN International calls on the government of China to protect the right to freedom of expression for all of its citizens, to end the persecution of writers, and to immediately and unconditionally release all those who remain imprisoned for their peaceful expression.
For further information please contact Ross Holder, Asia Programme Coordinator at PEN International, Unit A, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338, email: firstname.lastname@example.org