[Updated] Liu Xiaobo awarded Nobel Peace Prize

Liu Xiaobo

Unbeknown to him, Liu Xiaobo was this afternoon awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Nobel Committee chose Liu for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”

The Twittersphere exploded; from widespread news of the announcement’s transmission being cut in China to netizens’ celebratory meetups being organised (and, in some cases, cancelled for fear of police reprisals). Beijing responded furiously to the news, calling Liu’s win a “blasphemy to the peace prize.”

Quoted in The Guardian, outspoken writer Liao Yiwu said:

As Liu’s best friend, I am so happy I can’t describe what I feel. This is a big moment in Chinese history. It will greatly promote democratic developments in China and it is a huge encouragement to us and our friends.

There has been an influx of reactions to the news, with more likely to seep in. Full reports from The Guardian can be found here and here. At Forbes, Gady Epstein discusses what the prize, Liu himself and China’s other dissidents stand for, while more personal accounts of Liu have been penned by Evan Osnos at the New Yorker, and Channel 4’s Lindsey Hilsum. Over at the Christian Science Monitor, meanwhile, Peter Ford weighs up the possible harm today’s win could cause to China’s other human rights activists.

Charter 08, the pro-democracy manifesto that landed Liu in jail last December, is available to read here.


The vexed question of a Liu Xiaobo Nobel Peace Prize win

Activists holding photos of Liu Xiaobo. Photo by AP

One of the potential recipients of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, due to be announced tomorrow, is Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s most famed dissidents who was last year imprisoned to 11 years for ‘inciting subversion’, having co-authored the pro-democracy document Charter 08.

Modelled on Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, the polemic called for multi-party elections, independent courts and greater freedom of expression in the People’s Republic. It garnered around 7,000 signatures both in China and internationally, and warned of “the possibility of a violent conflict of disastrous proportions” if Beijing failed to reform the one-party authoritarian state.

The possibility of Liu receiving the prize does not sit well with Beijing, with China’s Foreign Ministry calling it “totally wrong.” The head of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, Geir Lundestad, also revealed that China’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Fu Ying, warned him that Liu’s win “would pull the wrong strings in relations between Norway and China, it would be seen as an unfriendly act.”

According to Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu, the fundamental issue is that Liu violated Chinese law. “His acts are completely contrary to the purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize,” she said.

Human rights and pro-democracy activists, however, have marched behind Liu’s cause. Vaclav Havel, the author of Charter 77, wrote in support of Liu’s potential win. Soon after, a Chinese petition signed by 300 scholars, former government officials, lawyers and factory workers followed:

We ask the Nobel Committee to honor Liu Xiaobo’s more than two decades of unflinching and peaceful advocacy for reform, and to make him the first Chinese recipient of that prestigious award. In doing so, the Nobel Committee would signal both to Liu and to the Chinese government that many inside China and around the world stand in solidarity with him, and his unwavering vision of freedom and human rights for the 1. 3 billion people of China.

Liu is no stranger to the world of Chinese dissent. He cut short a visiting scholarship at Columbia University to return to Beijing and participate in the deadly student and workers’ protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, during which he took part in high-profile hunger strikes. Authorities labelled him one of the protest’s ringleaders, and he served an 18 month jail sentence for ‘counter-revolution.’

Throughout the first half of the 1990s, he wrote a number of essays advocating freedom of expression, promoting human rights and criticising the government. However, he was eventually sentenced to three years of manual labour in a re-education camp, being released in 1999.

Nor is he the only Chinese activist to be shortlisted for the prize. Human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng and AIDS activist Hu Jia were both favourites in 2008, having lost out to Finnish former president Martti Ahtisaari. Hu was nominated again in 2009, though lost out to a one Barack Obama.

Were Liu to receive the prize, it would certainly be an embarrassment to Beijing over China’s poor human rights record. It would also undoubtedly boost global attention to Charter 08 and similar writings, which would otherwise remain in circulation among small pockets of Chinese citizens. It may intensify international pressure on China to instigate political reform, changes that Premier Wen Jiabao has himself alluded to over the past few weeks.

But it will take more than a Liu win to kick-start political reform in the PRC. Action at a policy level and legal changes, as discussed by scholar Pan Wei, namely in clarifying the role of civil society, are fundamental. At best, Liu’s potential success would raise awareness of dissent in China. How long-lasting this awareness will be remains to be seen.

But, as with most things in China, matters could also go to the other extreme, and a potential Liu win might backfire. In drawing attention to China’s human rights abuses and raising the profile of those pushing for change, Beijing will not only lose face, but the Communist Party’s entire legitimacy – its monopoly of authority – will be brought into question. For the CCP, this is a non-negotiable. In retaliation, the CCP might toughen its stance on China’s other dissidents.

Such a response occurred, for instance, after Liu’s imprisonment in December 2009. Tan Zuoren, who worked with Ai Weiwei in investigating the deaths of children in schools that collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake, was sentenced to five years for subversion in February. One month later, the outspoken writer Liao Yiwu was banned from leaving the country to attend a German literary festival.

In rallying behind Liu – and I should make it clear I greatly respect him for his bravery – it is important to remember how his followers might well bear the brunt of a tougher government only too willing to lead a crackdown on dissent.

Beijing has made it abundantly clear it does not want Liu Xiaobo to win tomorrow’s prize. If he does, and how China would respond, are anticipated.

Premier Wen: the need for democracy and freedom is “irresistible”

Premier Wen Jiabao at the 2009 World Economic Forum. Image from the World Economic Forum's Flickr photostream. Used under a Creative Commons license.

In a recent CNN interview, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao pledged that China will carry out political reform alongside economic growth. Speaking to Fareed Zakaria, the premier said,

I believe I and all the Chinese people have such conviction that China will make continuous progress and the people’s wishes and need for democracy and freedom are irresistible. I hope you will be able to gradually see the continuous progress of China.


I believe freedom of speech is indispensable for any country, a country in the course of development and in a country that has become strong.

He added that, in order for China to have a “normal order”, reforms must be “conducted within the range allowed by the constitution and the laws.”

In his first interview with a foreign journalist in two years, the remarks are Wen’s third mention of the need for such change in recent weeks. Earlier this month, the premier called for a loosening of the “excessive political control” of the CPC, and last week told the UN General Assembly that the People’s Republic would “push forward” political restructuring.

There has been increasing pressure for political change in China in recent years, much of which has been amplified by the new media revolution giving ordinary citizens a vehicle to express their views. Episodes of dissent have received much Western attention, such as the case of pro-democracy Charter 08 co-author Liu Xiaobo, who was imprisoned for 11 years last Christmas for “incitement to subvert state power.”

However, analysts have reminded us we should treat Wen’s remarks with caution, not as evidence that political reform is rising higher on the Communist Party’s agenda. Speaking to the Guardian, Columbia University professor Andrew Nation said,

It’s impossible to know exactly what Wen means by ‘political reform’ and ‘universal values’ … he probably envisions a great deal less reform and a great deal less human rights than we would think such words imply.

There is also skepticism over whether Wen, who will step down in 2012, has the time or political prowess to instigate such widespread reform. Activist and scholar Chen Yongmiao also told the Guardian,

It is pie in the sky. He only has two years left in office; even if he really sincerely wants it to happen, he cannot make it. For political reform to take place we need a really powerful leader to face the bureaucracy that’s constituted by so many people, to challenge it and to defeat it. Only Mao or Deng has had that kind of power.

Political reform, both at government and grassroots levels, have long been resisted by the CPC for fear of conceding its monopoly on power, and therefore its legitimacy as an authority. Wen has, however, made far greater mention of the need for political reform than President Hu Jintao. Hu instead prefers to err on the side of orthodoxy, emphasising the need for a ‘harmonious society’, often at the expense of addressing the root of China’s pressing social issues.

8964: thoughts on social unrest and democracy in China

The Goddess of Democracy. Image from China Digital Times

21 years ago today, Chinese military forces cracked down upon a protest led by students and workers in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Throughout a tumultuous spring, contentions and demonstrations had been building up in the Chinese capital. Deng Xiaoping had ordered the vast and imposing square be cleared by midnight on June 4th “at any cost.” China’s military opened fire on its own people, with the actual death toll remaining unknown today.

Aside from the tragic loss of life, Tiananmen is an important reminder not only of how social contentious can boil dramatically, but also the severity of China’s strategies of dealing with unrest. Today’s leaders remain so haunted by June 4th that maintaining social stability is their paramount aim.

However, in the West there is often tendency to romanticise the events of June 4th as a nationwide push for democracy. This is misleading for two reasons. Firstly, the reality is that the protests were divided into one group seeking fewer democratic reforms (workers) and other group seeking more (students). Secondly, the very notion of democracy in China is not one most Chinese might identify with. It is a grey area, a far cry from the black-and-white discourses that so often come out of the West.

Despite growth in various incomes, the 1980s saw a rise in widespread discontent amongst workers who felt Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms had gone too far. Inflation hit rates of around 18% and even peaked at 30% in urban areas by 1988-9. For the majority of China’s population, this was the first experience of such economic downturn, panic buying and the threat of unemployment.

Corruption was also rife, in part a result of the shortages in employment. These shortages triggered black marketing and smuggling, often organised by cadres or their children, weakening the already waning citizen faith in leadership. Although such unrest was also recognised at top levels – rectification campaigns in the mid-1980s sought to rid the leadership of nepotism, corruption and expenditure of public funds for higher officials’ personal gifts – the lack of any concrete change meant political instability could coalesce.

In light of this, students and intellectuals, in particular, felt Deng’s reforms had become stagnant. The discord between the government and these groups had been brewing since the mid-80s: for instance, a large student demonstrations in 1986 in Hefei, Anhui Province, which called for greater democratisation in China was swiftly repressed.

The catalyst came with the death of Hu Yaobang in April 1989, two years after his resignation from the position of Secretary General. Since the Anhui unrest, he had called for rapid reform in China. Around 30,000 students gathered to mourn him in Tiananmen Square, demanding continued liberalisation and the founding of unions for students and workers, as well as to simply mourn in public freely.

The course of the spring saw non-violent protest escalate into petitions being made to the Standing Committee of the Politburo, hunger strikes, the boycotting of university classes and instructions to state media from Secretary General Zhao Ziyang to spread more favourable coverage of the chaotic events.  Martial law was eventually declared, and despite initial civilian resistance, by dawn on 4th June Tiananmen Square had been emptied. Estimates of those killed range from 300 to tens of thousands.

To brand this tumultuous spring a ‘pro-democracy movement’ is wrong. Although the movement was a grassroots one, it did not cover or come from all of the lower stratas of society.

This leads us deeper into the contentious issue of democracy in China. Simply, China’s breakneck economic growth, which has led it to being the third largest economy in the world, has presided over political reforms. This has largely been met with pride, rather than resentment, from the Chinese public: the fact that China has achieved an economic superpower status at such a rapid speed and against a historical backdrop of a ‘century of humiliation’ (namely the Opium Wars, the Japanese occupation, the loss of Taiwan and America’s bid to contain the PRC) has bolstered public nationalist sentiment.

Further, these economic reforms have lifted around four hundred million out of poverty since 1980. It is of little surprise that maintaining new living standards presides over pushing for abstract democratic reforms. Han Han has summarised this:

To a lot of Chinese people, the value of seeking such things [freedom, truth, justice] is not nearly as high as seeking an apartment building or an online game to play.


This is a race of people who can eat genetically modified grain and oil distilled from recycled food scraps, drink melamine-infused milk, and take inferior vaccines. Their tolerance is higher than you can imagine. Their needs are lower than you can imagine.

This is not to say, however, that Chinese citizens are completely socially or politically apathetic. The country’s contentions have indeed been multiplying, from netizens’ appeals for social justice to environmental demonstrations, from unrest over the restrictive hukou (household registration) system to recent labour strikes. But democracy as a concept is sought by only a few: it is for this reason that the daring Charter 08 did not resonate widely beyond an intellectual urbanite collective.

It is therefore safe to ask, should China be expected to follow a Western track of democratisation, given that the majority of its society does not demand it? Pan Wei has argued that the CCP’s single party rule could be made more efficient and corruption lessened by the rule of law, an impartial civil service and an independent judiciary. These top-down reforms would avoid both the collapse of the CCP and an evolution toward Western style electoral democracy, in theory creating greater government accountability without de-legitimising the CCP’s monopoly on power.

China will not, cannot and should not transform into a democracy overnight. But incremental legal changes, as suggested by Pan Wei, are of the essence, especially since this particular anniversary occurs at a time of unrest and when social inequalities triggering macabre acts of revenge. Indeed, China’s very contradiction is that antiquated mechanisms of hardline suppression are still being used to deal with newly brimming contentions, which are now coming from a wider variety of actors than ever before.

If Tiananmen has taught the CCP anything, it is that more sustainable and effective strategies of dealing with unrest need to be developed that go beyond repression. These are necessary if the CCP is to legitimise one party rule and lessen any chances of political or social instability. Otherwise, social contentions will continue to ferment. While these may not add up to another Tiananmen, they will certainly increase the volume of one question: when will political reform catch up with economic deliverance?

To commemorate the anniversary, China Digital Times will be posting a series of original news stories from the spring of 1989.

China upholds Liu Xiaobo sentence

Liu Xiaobo

This may come as no surprise to most of us, but the sad news reached us today that China has upheld Liu Xiaobo’s sentencing to 11 years in prison for subversion of state power.

US ambassador Jon Huntsman said,

We are disappointed by the Chinese Government’s decision. (…) We believe that he should not have been sentenced in the first place and should be released immediately.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, said China had missed an opportunity to ‘right a wrong’. Roseann Rife, an Asia-Pacific official for the organisation, said,

His harsh sentence is a stark reminder to the Chinese people and the world that there is still no freedom of expression or independent judiciary in China.

This also follows the recent sentencing of Tan Zuoren, who faces five years for seeking to document the poor construction of the schools that fatally collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Today’s poignant decision cast a sombre mood over those caught in the struggle for China’s democratisation. As Michael Anti tweeted,

Feb 11, 1990, Mandela walked out of the jail. 20 yrs later, Feb 11, 2010, Li Xiaobo was confirmed 11 yrs sentence.

Liu Xiaobo’s Trial is the morning call for every Chinese democrat. See you soon, my dear Mr Mandela.

Liu Xiaobo: “I hope to be the last victim of China’s endless literary inquisition.”

Liu Xiaobo


China Digital Times today posted Liu Xiaobo’s poignant final statement, originally written two days prior to his sentencing on Christmas Day 2009. The whole piece is worthy of your attention, but here are a few excerpts that stood out to me:


I look forward to my country being a land of free expression, where all citizens’ speeches are treated the same; here, different values, ideas, beliefs, political views… both compete with each other and coexist peacefully; here, majority and minority opinions will be given equal guarantees, in particular, political views different from those in power will be fully respected and protected; here, all political views will be spread in the sunlight for the people to choose; all citizens will be able to express their political views without fear, and will never be politically persecuted for voicing dissent; I hope to be the last victim of China’s endless literary inquisition, and that after this no one else will ever be jailed for their speech.


Simply for expressing divergent political views and taking part in a peaceful and democratic movement, a teacher loses his podium, a writer loses the right to publish, and a public intellectual loses the chance to speak publicly, which is a sad thing, both for myself as an individual, and for China after three decades of reform and opening up.


I still want to tell the regime that deprives me of my freedom, I stand by the belief I expressed twenty years ago in my “June Second hunger strike declaration”— I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who have monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentence me, are my enemies. While I’m unable to accept your surveillance, arrest, prosecution or sentencing, I respect your professions and personalities (…) For hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation’s spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy.


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 the 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.


Freedom of expression is the basis of human rights, the source of humanity and the mother of truth. To block freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, to strangle humanity and to suppress the truth.


But my love for you [Liu Xia] is full of guilt and regret, sometimes heavy enough hobble my steps. I am a hard stone in the wilderness, putting up with the pummeling of raging storms, and too cold for anyone to dare touch. But my love is hard, sharp, and can penetrate any obstacles. Even if I am crushed into powder, I will embrace you with the ashes.

I do not feel guilty for following my constitutional right to freedom of expression, for fulfilling my social responsibility as a Chinese citizen. Even if accused of it, I would have no complaints. Thank you!