What’s happened since Liu Xiaobo’s win?

Less than a week has passed since Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” The fallout since then has been heated, and few China-related tweets go by without a mention of Liu or what his prize will mean for the prospect of political reform in China. Tiananmen veteran Wu’er Kaixi has argued that Liu’s win will give the West a much-needed chance to engage better with China and place pressure on it to improve its human rights record, while Kerry Brown has drawn parallels between Beijing’s knee-jerk response and China’s internal weakness.

The points below are a summary of the events that followed news of Liu’s win.

  • Elated reactions were rife on Twitter, as ChinaGeeks covered in the minutes after Liu was announced as the winner. Pro-democracy demonstrations led by human rights activists also quickly ensued in Hong Kong.
  • Chinese media censors blacked out broadcasts of the news. This was followed by the Foreign Ministry slamming the prize, calling it a “blasphemy” and an insult to the people of China.
  • Later that evening (8th October), Liu Xia travelled in police custody to the Liaoning prison her husband is serving his 11-year sentence in. Over the weekend, reports surfaced that she had “gone missing”, after her lawyer and concerned friends revealed they could not contact her. Eventually, she tweeted that she had met her husband, who, having cried upon being told of his win, dedicated the prize to the “dead spirits of Tiananmen.” She also added that his prison conditions had improved since the Nobel, with staff now giving him better food.
  • Also during the weekend, up to 30 Chinese intellectuals were detained, warned or placed under house arrest in an attempt to contain celebrations of Liu’s win. The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts reports that many were connected to a Stockholm-based freedom of expression group, of which Liu was also a member. Around 20 were celebrating in Beijing when police broke up the party.
  • On Monday it was revealed that Liu Xia had been placed under house arrest, and remains skeptical of whether she will be able to leave China to collect her husband’s award. Her phone has been cut and she is forbidden from leaving her apartment in Beijing. Journalists have tried to secure interviews with her, but to no avail: Al Jazeera’s Melissa K. Chan posted this clip of her own attempt today.
  • China also kept to its word when it told Norway that awarding Liu the prize could damage relations between Oslo and Beijing by promptly cancelling a meeting with a Norwegian fisheries minister. It also cut a Norwegian musical due to be performed next month in Beijing.
  • Finally, China Media Project translated an open letter penned by CCP veterans that called for increased freedom of speech, an abolition of censorship, and for there to be “no more taboos concerning our Party’s history”. However, confusion has sparked over whether the letter was indeed sparked by Liu’s win: at the bottom, it is dated 1st October 2010, seven days before the Nobel Committee awarded Liu the prize.



[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.

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.

Why China is also a loser in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute

Japanese prosecutors have vowed to free the Chinese captain they arrested two weeks ago after a collision near a set of uninhabited islands disputed between both Japan and China in the East China Sea.

Zhan Qixiong’s ship collided with two Japanese coastguard vessels on 8th September near the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands), which both East Asian nations claim as their own. Zhan was subsequently handed over to prosecutors on the southern Japanese island of Ishigaki, where he was detained and questioned over “intentionally hitting at least one patrol ship and obstructing officers.” If found guilty, he could have faced up to three years in prison.

Today, however, Japan conceded that no damage was intended, but blamed Zhan for ignoring repeated requests to leave the hotly-disputed area.

The row between Japan and China following Zhan’s detention was a key factor in today’s decision making, Japanese prosecutors said. Premier Wen demanded Zhan’s release, claiming Zhan’s detention was illegal, while Tokyo called for high-level bilateral talks between the two nations. However, once Japan extended Zhan’s period of detention, China retaliated by cutting diplomatic communication.

It did not stop there: a selection of Chinese travel agencies cancelled package tours to Japan, while a Chinese ticket agency suspended ticket sales of a Japanese band’s gigs in mainland China, a Japanese tabloid reported. The situation became even stickier yesterday, as The Economist reports:

China’s response seemed to take an especially nefarious turn when it apparently suspended its export of rare-earth minerals, which are vital to making electronics components used in everything from handheld gadgets to cars. On September 23rd China emphatically denied that it is blocking exports.

The row undoubtedly opened a lot of old wounds for China in terms of its national pride, which Tokyo had feared. Since such a substantial part of Chinese nationalism rests on how China battled against foreign humiliation, in particular Japanese oppression, to form a nation, it is unsurprising that this month’s events have garnered such sensitive responses from citizens. Ever more the vehicle for discussion and protest, the Chinese Internet was awash with nationalist sentiment. In the words of one netizen, reposted on ChinaSMACK:

Our national humiliation can never be forgotten. As an ordinary common person, all I can do is be angry and boycott Japanese goods; if there is a war, as a reserve officer, I will not hesitate!

In conceding to China’s heated demands, Japan has, much to China’s relish, perhaps come off from this scenario looking weak and unable to avoid diplomatic pressure from its looming neighbour. That China recently surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-biggest economy is an attest to the Middle Kingdom’s growing prowess.

However, none of this is to say China is the ‘winner’ in this battle for Zhan’s release. As The Economist wrote today, China’s actions have “called into question its maturity as a responsible international actor and undermined its pretensions to a ‘peaceful rise’.” That China should respond so dramatically to such a dispute does its diplomatic image as a global player no favours. Similarly melodramatic responses have plagued the nation throughout the past year, from its stubbornness to agree to legally-binding cuts at Copenhagen to a slew of disputes with the US ranging from Google’s exit to the revaluation of the Renminbi.

However, given China’s knack for holding on to its history tight, in particular the pain inflicted on the nation by Japan, its reaction to this month’s events is perhaps understandable. But understandable only to an extent: China’s obstinacy may well prove to be unsustainable as more and more global players become, simply, fed up of having to deal with a nation that won’t compromise.

For the past year, China has been Japan’s number one trading partner, and so it is in both countries’ interests to maintain diplomatic ties. The nasty effect of this month’s episode on those relations remains to be seen: perhaps the two countries, with a lot of face having been lost, will proceed with business as usual. Perhaps the event may harbour deeper resentment for an inability to progress past historical wounds. In any case, the post-decision “chill” will certainly be felt.

Some Saturday reading

A full blog entry is on its way, but in the meantime, here are some ways to spend the time locked inside thanks to the Shanghai rain.
  • Danwei has reposted an archived letter from Taipei-based journalist Ralph Jennings’ advice column, in which a teenage girl with “relatively good looks, a slim figure, good family background and an excellent academic performance” yearns for popularity. Jennings himself says: “here’s where members of China’s only-child generation start paying dues. Children smothered in the formative years by parental compliments imagine it’s impossible to do serious wrong or to fail against public perception. Then they go off to a faraway college where no one really cares.”
  • A Beijing zoo is up there with Shanghai’s notorious counterpart in the extreme stakes. Visitors are discouraged from feeding the hippos, crocodiles or kangaroos, but are allowed to eat them at the zoo’s exotic restaurant, The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts has reported. The offerings have garnered a fair amount of criticism, with bloggers and experts from the China Academy of Social Sciences and the International Fund for Animal Welfare speaking out. Staff have since pledged to revise the menu.
  • Forbes’ Gady Epstein has reviewed The Party, a new book by the FT’s Richard McGregor, which exposes the pervasive workings of the CCP in business and public life. The money quote comes from a Renmin University professor who told McGregor, “the Party is like God. He is everywhere. You just can’t see him.”
  • The Dalai Lama yesterday held an hour-long online chat with Chinese netizens via Twitter. In reference to China’s policies in Tibet, the spiritual leader said, “the government made these tensions, not the people.” An English translation of the conversation is ongoing (click here).
  • With much talk going on regarding China’s social injustices fuelling the recent spate of school killings, the China Elections and Governance blog has offered a detailed look into the source of citizens’ resentment. Mao Yushi claims the CCP’s violence and force in dealing with social unrest is futile. He says, “when selecting a state leader, two parties should finally turn to voting to break the deadlock. If we set up such a voting system, our society can become reasonable again. Stability can thus be maintained, and citizen resentment will be gone.”
  • Gulp…if I ever needed a final push to revamp this blog, Adam Daniel Mezei has certainly provided it. He argues for a drastic reduction in the number of China blogs out there (agreed) that are “doing scant more than than making noise and rattling people’s cages.” Right then…

Catching Up

…aaaand we’re back. Having been strangely disconnected but also overly wired during the recent Global Voices Summit in Santiago de Chile, the jetlag from my 33-hour journey has passed and the waves of information I received have settled. So, while I still may be catching up with what’s shaking, …in Shanghai is no longer dormant. Below are a just a few fruits of my ‘labour’.
  • The Taixing kindergarten attacker, Xu Yuyuan, was found guilty of intentional homicide and sentenced to death after a half-day open trial on Sunday. Xu’s attack injured 29 children and three teachers, but killed no-one. He admitted to the court his motive was to vent his rage against Chinese society.
  • Reuters has also reported that six Chinese women were injured in a cleaver attack at a market in Foshan, Guangdong on Sunday. Their attacker then killed himself by jumping from a building. None of the victims died.
  • This post by Andrew Browne at the WSJ’s China Real Time Report draws parallels between Thailand and China’s social polarisation. The current turmoil in Bangkok resonates also in Beijing, Browne says, with China’s leaders fearing similar actions that could threaten social and government stability and entrench China’s societal divides.
  • The Guardian and The Telegraph have both looked into the pressures of working life and vulnerability of the young employees at Foxconn’s Shenzhen plant, where seven suicides among workers aged between 18 and 24 have recently occurred. Reasons offered to understand the spate range from the extreme pressures factory workers are under to a lack the resilience amongst younger generations to cope with them.
  • Gome Electronic tycoon Huang Guangyu was today sentenced to 14 years’ imprisonment for insider trading and other offences. Having been detained in November 2008, he had reportedly been accused of manipulating share prices.
  • China Daily has reported that loopholes in the country’s tax system is widening the already grave income gap. Following an investigation carried out in Anhui, Liaoning and Hunan, small- and medium-sized enterprises were found to be struggling with heavy tax burdens, which larger companies have become more adept at evading.
  • Finally, the BBC World Service has begun a documentary series on soft power with an episode on China. To listen, click here.

*Updated* – Dealing with Qinghai

Image from china.org.cn

Update: The Telegraph’s Malcolm Moore and Al-Jazeera’s Melissa K. Chan have said foreign journalists have been banned from quake zone because it is too dangerous. Moore also says that Chinese blogs have reported road blocks 80km outside of Yushu. For photographs (although very distressing) of the aftermath, click here.

Yesterday a 7.1 magnitude earthquake hit Yushu, Qinghai province, killing over 500 and injuring around 10,000. Hundreds remain trapped, and according to the Yushu Red Cross, 70% of local schools have collapsed. In the nearby township of Jiegu, 85% of buildings were destroyed. A local spokesperson told Xinhua:

The streets in Jiegu are thronged with panic, full of injured people, with many of them bleeding from their injuries. (…) The biggest problem now is that we lack tents, medical equipment, medicine and medical workers.

The government has dispatched emergency personnel, over 3,000 paramilitary police and disaster response specialists to Yushu county, but infrastructure is damaging the relief work. According to reports from AP and The Guardian, the nearest airport is damaged, the road to Yushu has been blocked by a landslide, and several transmission stations are out of action. Rescue teams have also said they lacked heavy lifting equipment, instead relying on their bare hands to clear rubble, and one army police officer told The Guardian he and his team had no medical equipment.

A lingering thought is how far Wednesday’s quake will be similar to the Wenchuan earthquake of 2008, during which 87,000 died and China came under intense fire for shoddily built schools and restricted media reporting. So far, it has been reported that 56 students in Yushu have died, with tens upon tens remaining trapped. Evan Osnos cites a Xinhua report in which a teacher at Yushu Primary School said: “Morning sessions had not begun when the quake happened. Some pupils ran out of the dorm alive, and those who had not escaped in time were buried.”

Given Yushu’s population density being higher than Wenchuan’s, it is hoped there will be fewer casualties. Indeed, drawing parallels between the two at this stage is largely speculative, as news trickles through and relief efforts continue.

Interestingly, there does seem to be a more open approach to media coverage of the tragedy. Reports have cited Qinghai Propaganda Department head Jidi Majia calling on the media “to be responsible, to strengthen the role of guiding public opinion, strengthen political consciousness in propaganda work. (…) We must be ready to accommodate media from outside the province, and let everyone see the spirit of the Qinghai Province people, see that we are not afraid of difficulties.”

However, searches for the topic on the Baidu post bar initially resulted in the following message: “Sorry, according to relevant laws, regulations and policies, this bar [discussion] is temporarily not open.” According to the WSJ, a subsequent Twitter discussion soon led to searches for Qinghai on the post bar producing results.

For more details of the tragedy, see The Guardian’s interactive guide. Plus, if you would like to donate to Qinghai, click here.