By Larry Siems, PEN American Center
Next week, PEN American Center will award one of its highest honors, the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese intellectual and literary critic who played a pivotal role in Tiananmen Square 20 years ago and who has been in and out of jail ever since for his uncompromising activism for freedom of expression in China.
On December 8, 2008, Liu Xiaobo was arrested again, this time for his involvement in Charter 08, a declaration he co-authored calling for political and human rights reforms in his country. He has since been held under "residential surveillance" at an unknown location and is reportedly being investigated for "inciting subversion of state power."
PEN has a special interest in Liu Xiaobo's case: Liu is a PEN member himself, one of 250 members of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, a front-line defender of the freedom to write in China (Liu was President of ICPC from 2003 to 2007 and continues to serve on its Board). But his detention is much more than an internal matter for PEN.
Liu was arrested in that foreign policy dead zone between President Obama's election and his inauguration, when the news was dominated by dire reports about the U.S. economy; China's leaders surely knew they could count on a few months of American indifference. But they must have been as delighted as human rights supporters were shocked when Hillary Clinton, in her first visit as Secretary of State in late February, not only did not publicly protest Liu Xiaobo's detention, but announced that human rights concerns would take a back seat to economic issues in the new administration.
The stance was widely read as a realpolitik acknowledgment of China's status as an emerging world power, a power that has a significant say in the day-to-day realities of other countries, not least the United States.
China is an emerging superpower--which is precisely why the whole world should be so concerned about Liu Xiaobo. Here are 5 reasons why what happens to Liu matters to everyone on the planet:
1) Charter 08 represents a significant and growing movement for political reform in China. The document Liu co-authored is a remarkable attempt both to engage China's leadership and to speak to the Chinese public about where China is and needs to go. It is novel in its breadth and in its list of signers--not only dissidents and human rights lawyers, but also prominent political scientists, economists, writers, artists, grassroots activists, and even government officials. Almost all of the original 300 signers have since been detained or harassed, but more than 8,000 others have now endorsed the document despite the pressure. One of them, a teacher in Yunnan province, recently reported that police contacted her three times asking her to renounce the Charter and proclaim the signer was some other person with the same name. She refused. To stand up for Liu Xiaobo is to stand with a growing number of men and women like her in China.
2) Liu's detention is also an attempt to suppress its own history of violence. This June 4th marks the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, when the People's Liberation Army overran protesters in and around the square, killing hundreds. Those events remain one of the most taboo subjects in China. Liu is one of several key participants in the 1989 demonstrations who have been detained in advance of the anniversary; most recently, Jiang Qisheng, a writer and current Vice President of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, was interrogated and had his personal computers and notebooks seized. A government that silences those who try to discuss its violent excesses is one that is reserving the power to suppress its people violently in the future. A government that has that power in reserve sooner or later will feel the need to use it.
3) Liu Xiaobo is the kind of figure governments suppress at their peril. A young university professor at the time, Liu was a major protagonist in the final days of the Tiananmen Square protests, and is widely credited with preventing far greater bloodshed when Chinese troops moved into the square. Liu admonished the students to make their own movement more democratic, disarmed a group of workers who appeared with guns to protect the student demonstrators, and helped persuade students to evacuate the square in the final hours. Often abrasive personally but deeply committed to non-violence and democracy, Liu has been able to both articulate and to channel the frustrations of the Chinese people for more than two decades. Stifling such a voice does nothing to address those frustrations, which one way or another will eventually find expression.
4) Liu's arrest shows what happens when the world fails to challenge China on its human rights abuses. In its bid to host the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China pledged to improve its human rights record and ensure Internet and press freedom before and during the Olympics. It did neither. Thirteen writers, journalists, and bloggers were jailed during the year, including 2 of Liu's colleagues at the Independent Chinese PEN Center. The world did little to protest these arrests, and now that the international spotlight has moved elsewhere, Chinese authorities clearly believe they can move against figures like Liu. Secretary Clinton's comments during her visit to Beijing in February only served to fortify this notion.
5) If China can jail Liu Xiaobo without repercussions, dissident voices around the world are even more vulnerable. A feature of China's ascendancy on the world stage has been its implicit agreement with rights-abusing regimes that it will turn a blind eye to even the most blatant human rights violations in exchange for preferred commercial relations. The courageous men and women who are challenging tyranny in these countries are looking to the United States and Europe for assurances that their fate, and the fate of their countries, depends on something more than the bottom line. To fail to challenge the Chinese government on Liu Xiaobo's imprisonment is to concede this argument internationally, at enormous peril to peaceful advocates of progress and change around the world.
Please take a moment to add your name to PEN's petition for Liu Xiaobo's release.
Larry Siems is Director of Freedom to Write and International Programs at PEN American Center. He is also a poet and a nonfiction writer and has written extensively on immigration and cross-cultural issues.