[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.

Gao Zhisheng to ‘give up former life’

Gao Zhisheng, from The Telegraph

In his first interview since his recent resurfacing, human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng has said he will be abandoning his role as a fierce critic of the CCP in hopes of being reunited with his family. He told AP,

I don’t have the capacity to persevere. On the one hand, it’s my past experiences. It’s also that these experiences greatly hurt my loved ones. This ultimate choice of mine, after a process of deep and careful thought, is to seek the goal of peace and calm.

Similarly, Gao told journalists in March he needed “to calm down and lead a quiet life.”

His crusading defence of Falun Gong practitioners and Christian groups led to his law license being revoked in 2005, and he later confessed to charges of sedition after what he said was over a month of torture in 2006. In February of this year, Gao was finally declared ‘missing’ one year after he was seized by authorities.

His family, meanwhile, lived under surveillance from 2006 until January 2009, when they fled China and were granted asylum by the US.

Gao remained humble and positive when asked how his move will affect his supporters:

Everybody will be disappointed. Some people were really involved, concerned, supportive, making appeals. So when they read my words they will definitely feel disappointed. To them, I apologize. I’m extremely sorry.

(..)

Just because of the repression I experienced, don’t think that other people won’t do what I did. That’s not human nature…If there’s one more of me or one less of me in the field, it doesn’t matter. These years we’ve heard that a lot of others are eager to try. I still want to talk with them and hope they can learn a lesson from me.

Gao Zhisheng surfaces

Gao Zhisheng, photo from Human Rights Watch

It was reported yesterday that prominent human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng has surfaced in Wutai Mountain, the site of a well-known Buddhist monastery in Shanxi province, after having been missing for over a year. Speaking to Western journalists over the phone, Gao said:

I’m fine now, but I’m not in a position to be interviewed (…) I’ve been sentenced but released.

Over the past year, Gao’s situation has been shrouded in mystery. In February, he was declared ‘missing’ one year after he was seized by authorities.

Gao has long been a thorn in the government’s side by defending Falun Gong practitioners and Christian groups. His law license was revoked in 2005, and he later confessed to charges of sedition after what he said was over a month of torture in 2006. Following this, he and his family lived under surveillance, which his wife and children evaded in January 2009 by fleeing China and being granted asylum by the US.

Earlier this month, having been pressed on the topic by British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yang Jiechi denied that Gao had ever been tortured, but claimed he had been sentenced to prison for subversion. BBC News also spoke with Gao’s brother, Gao Zhiyi, who revealed he had spoken on the phone with his sibling. He said his brother had “sounded alright, but didn’t say where he was calling from.”

Gao told journalists on Sunday, “right now I just need to calm down and lead a quiet life.” He then ended the conversation by referring to his wife and children: “they are like kites that have had their strings cut, and now they are floating far off into the sky.”