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The New York Times

Nobel Peace Prize Given to Jailed Chinese Dissident




Published: October 8, 2010

BEIJING — Liu Xiaobo, an impassioned literary critic, political essayist and democracy advocate repeatedly jailed by the Chinese government for his activism, has won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”

Mr. Liu, 54, perhaps China’s best known dissident, is serving an 11-year term on subversion charges, in a cell 300 miles from Beijing, and remains unknown to most Chinese.

He is one of three people to have received the prize while incarcerated by their own governments, after the Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991, and the German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky in 1935.

By awarding the prize to Mr. Liu, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has provided an unmistakable rebuke to Beijing’s authoritarian leaders at a time of growing intolerance for domestic dissent and a spreading unease internationally over the muscular diplomacy that has accompanied China’s economic rise.

In a move that in retrospect appears to have been counterproductive, a senior Chinese official had warned the Norwegian committee’s secretary that giving the prize to Mr. Liu would adversely affect relations between the two countries.

The committee, in announcing the prize Friday, noted that China, the world’s second biggest economy, should be commended for lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

But it chastised the government for ignoring basic rights guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution and in the international conventions to which Beijing is a party. “In practice, these freedoms have proved to be distinctly curtailed for China’s citizens,” committee members said, adding, “China’s new status must entail increased responsibility.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry reacted angrily to the news, calling it a “desecration” of the peace prize and saying it would harm Norwegian-Chinese relations. The Chinese government summoned Norway’s ambassador to protest the award, a spokesman for the Norwegian Foreign Ministry told reporters.

“The Nobel Committee giving the peace prize to such a person runs completely contrary to the aims of the prize,” Ma Zhaoxu, a spokesman said in a statement posted on the ministry’s Web site. “Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who has been sentenced by Chinese judicial departments for violating Chinese law.”

Headlines about the award were nowhere to be found in the Chinese-language state media or on the country’s main Internet portals. Broadcasts about Liu Xiaobo (pronounced Liew Sheeow-boh) on CNN, which reach only luxury compounds and hotels in China, were blacked out throughout the evening. Many mobile phone users reported not being able to transmit text messages containing his name in Chinese.

But on government-monitored microblogs like Sina.com, which regularly blocks searches for his name, the news still generated nearly 6,000 comments within an hour of the announcement.

The announcement also energized international calls for Mr. Liu’s release, including one from President Obama, who urged China to free him “as soon as possible,” saying that political reforms in China had not kept pace with its economic growth.

Given that he has no access to a telephone, it was unlikely that Mr. Liu would immediately learn of the news, his wife, Liu Xia, said. On Friday night, dozens of foreign reporters gathered outside the couple’s building in Beijing but they were prevented from entering by the police, who posted a sign saying the complex residents “politely refused” to be interviewed. Later, police led away Ms. Liu and her brother, who were told they were being escorted to see Mr. Liu, his brother, Liu Xiaoxuan, said on Saturday. But as of midday, the pair still could not be reached.

Mr. Liu is not expected to accept the prize in person. The award includes a gold medal, a diploma and the equivalent of $1.5 million.

The prize is an enormous psychological boost for China’s beleaguered reform movement and an affirmation of the two decades Mr. Liu has spent advocating peaceful political change in the face of unremitting hostility from the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Blacklisted from academia and barred from publishing in China, Mr. Liu has been harassed and detained repeatedly since 1989, when he stepped into the drama playing out on Tiananmen Square by staging a hunger strike and then negotiating the peaceful retreat of student demonstrators as thousands of soldiers stood by with rifles drawn.

“If not for the work of Liu and the others to broker a peaceful withdrawal from the square, Tiananmen Square would have been a field of blood on June 4,” said Gao Yu, a veteran journalist and fellow dissident who was arrested in the hours before the tanks began moving through the city.

Mr. Liu's most recent arrest in December 2008 came a day before a reformist manifesto he helped shape began circulating on the Internet. The petition, Charter ’08, demanded that China’s rulers guarantee civil liberties, judicial independence and the kind of political reform that would ultimately end the Communist Party’s monopoly on power.

“For all these years, Liu Xiaobo has persevered in telling the truth about China and because of this, for the fourth time, he has lost his personal freedom,” his wife said in an interview on Wednesday.

An inexhaustible writer, poet and piquant social commentator, Mr. Liu was among the first of his generation to return to college after the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976, when schools were shuttered and intellectuals were banished to the countryside.

In a book of dialogues he published under a pseudonym with the popular writer Wang Shuo, Mr. Liu later described those years as a “temporary emancipation from the education process,” but ultimately found them deeply disturbing for the cruelty they inspired. In one passage, he recalled taunting an old man suspected of sympathizing with Chiang Kai-Shek, the Nationalist leader who had been defeated by Mao Zedong’s Communist rebels. The abuse, he said, brought the man to tears. “In that era, when people were not treated as human, we were all guilty,” Mr. Liu said.

After graduating from the Chinese department at Jilin University, Mr. Liu enrolled at Beijing Normal University, where he was first a doctoral student and then a teacher. It was in the mid-1980s that he burst to fame for rousing lectures and incisive works of literary criticism that demanded an honest reckoning of the historical excesses under Mao. His writings were so bracing that school officials nearly denied him his doctoral degree.

In 1988, he left China for a series of speaking engagements in Norway, Hawaii and New York. It was in the spring of 1989, while a visiting scholar at Columbia University, that thousands of students began occupying Tiananmen Square, the ceremonial heart of the nation, with their calls for democracy and an end to official corruption. Mr. Liu later says he hesitated — he almost turned back during a change of planes in Tokyo — but returned to China that May as demonstrations spread across the country, paralyzing the leadership in Beijing.

In early June, as it became apparent the military would clear the square by force, Mr. Liu and three other well-known intellectuals staged a 72-hour hunger strike as a show of solidarity that he later said was necessary to earn the students’ trust as the movement lurched toward a violent end. In the early morning hours of June 4, as the army closed in, the men pried a stolen rifle from the hands of a distraught student and negotiated with military commissars to allow the protesters to safely exit the square.

Over the next few days as the crackdown began in earnest and many protest organizers fled China, Mr. Liu was arrested and later castigated in the state press as a traitorous “black hand” who had helped orchestrate what the government termed a counter-revolutionary rebellion.

After his release in 1991, Mr. Liu was stripped of his teaching job but he continued to gather petitions pressing for democracy, human rights and the reassessment of the government’s verdict on the Tiananmen protests. In 1995, his unbowed activism brought another arrest leading to an eight-month detention and in 1996, he was sentenced to three years in a labor camp for a series of essays that criticized the government and called for an end to official corruption.

In those days, Mr. Liu bicycled across the city to the compounds where foreigners worked and lived to fax off his writings to overseas journals.

Zhang Zuhua, a former Communist Youth League official who later played a pivotal role in drafting Charter ’08, said Mr. Liu was a solitary advocate in the 1990s, when fear, exile and the pursuit of self-enrichment silenced most Chinese intellectuals.

“While others were researching the same problems from a theoretical or policy standpoint, he was actively protesting and actually doing things,” Mr. Zhang said.

When Mr. Liu emerged from prison in 1999, the Internet had taken hold in China and was beginning to transform the nature of public discourse. At first reluctant to use a computer, Mr. Liu quickly became a prolific commentator on overseas Web sites, later calling the Internet “God’s gift to China.” Over the years, he published more than 1,000 articles.

Inspired by a number of documents, including the United States Constitution and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, Charter '08 was in some ways a culmination of Mr. Liu’s search for pragmatic ways to push for political reform in China. Although he initially heeded his wife’s pleas not to join the drafting, he later immersed himself in the three-year effort, revising it numerous times and working to convince more than 300 people — intellectuals, workers and party members — to add their names.

In its brief life on the Internet, the petition gathered some 10,000 signatures before censors stymied its spread. In the Internet crackdown that followed, scores of blogs were shut down, the initial 300 signatories were interrogated and Mr. Liu was taken to an undisclosed location and held virtually incommunicado for a half year before his arrest.

At a two-hour trial last December, the government cited Charter '08 and six essays he had written to argue that Mr. Liu had exceeded the right to free expression by “openly slandering and inciting others to overthrow our country’s state power,” according to the verdict. Mr. Liu countered that he had simply advocated a gradual and nonviolent change in governance.

In a statement he gave to the court before his sentencing on Christmas Day, he said he held no grudge against those who sought to silence him and he even thanked his captors for treating him with dignity.

“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,” he said. “China will eventually become a country of 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.”


The New York Times