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HD China: Liu Xiaobo

March 28, 2011

自由. zìyóu. freedom

天安门. tiānānmén. Tiananmen Square. 2009

[readers note: this post is part of a series. To read earlier versions, or get some background, please see: what is HD China?introemergence of the web, international law]

The Case of Liu Xiaobo

In October 2010 the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden awarded Chinese citizen, Liu Xiaobo with the Nobel Peace Prize.  The Norwegian Nobel Committee recognized Mr. Liu for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” [i]

But Mr. Liu will not be able to accept his award in person.  Labeled China’s most prominent dissident, Liu is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence on “subversion charges.”  The story of Liu Xiaobo is compelling, current and controversial.  On one hand, Mr. Liu’s two decades of advocating for political change, civil liberties and judicial independence is applauded around the world.  On the other, many authorities have understood Liu Xiaobo as “a criminal who has been sentenced by Chinese judicial departments for violating Chinese law” and that this recognition “runs completely contrary to the aims of the prize.” [ii]

Liu Xiaobo’s path of activism is unique in many ways.  While others were researching the same problems from a theoretical or policy standpoint, he was actively protesting. From staging a 72-hour hunger strike at Tiananmen Square to circulating online a highly sensitive democratic reformist manifesto that gained over 10,000 signatures.

Mr. Liu was amongst the first-wave of student’s in his generation to return to school after the Cultural Revolution—a period of time in China during the 60s and 70s where schools were “shuttered” and intellectuals were “banished to the countryside.”  In the mid-1980s Mr. Liu eventually went on to teaching became known for his “rousing lectures and incisive works of literary criticism that demanded an honest reckoning of the historical excesses under Mao.” [iii]

His choice to return from the United States and take part in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 resulted in arrest and the loss of his teaching job.  After his release Mr. Liu shared his sentiments: [iv]

“I was imprisoned for ‘counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement to crime,’ losing the platform which was my passion; I was never again allowed publish or speak in public in China. 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.”

Yet his activism in pressing for democracy, human rights and reassessment continued.  Two detentions followed in the mid-90s, including one where he was sentenced to three years at a labor camp for a series of essays that “criticized the government and called for an end to official corruption.” [v]

Liu Xiaobo’s case is by no means the first of its kind in a less than democratic regime, but it is arguably the most symbolic to date.  It does not take long for one to surf the Web and encounter results containing controversial stories of censorship, limits on expression and other related issues in China.

And as shocking as some of the stories may seem, it seems that by taking a purely accusatory stance without fully appreciating the reality one can do more harm than good. A more effective viewpoint considers the reality in terms of a constellation of factors.  For instance, with a history of nearly 5,000 years, China is a country that has “opened” up to the rest of the world in only the past couple of decades.

Liu Xiaobo eloquently expressed this sentiment before being sentenced to 11-years in prison during his December 2009 trial: [vi]

“As we all know, reform and opening up brought about development of the state and change in society. In my view, it began with abandoning taking “class struggle” as the key link, which had been the ruling principle of the Mao era. We committed ourselves instead to economic development and social harmony. The process of abandoning the “philosophy of struggle” was one of gradually diluting the mentality of enmity, eliminating the psychology of hatred, and pressing out the “wolf’s milk” in which our humanity had been steeped.”

Compare this historical lifeline to the United States young democracy that only 50 years ago struggled equality and civil rights issues—some of the most basic ideals of human rights.

This attenuated comparison serves the purposes of recognizing that the organic changes and growth of a sovereign nation are the most desirable.  International efforts and external pressures in the name of human rights, from economic and diplomatic instruments between Nations, to the growing influences of NGOs and other participants certainly contribute to the goal of accountability and universal standards.  And although “rhetoric is far from cheap” and “increased rhetoric in articulation and support of the common interest can help to generate, cultivate, sustain, and fortify the expectations of the peoples around the globe in the direction of a world public order of human dignity” [vii], rhetoric, and even legislation mean nothing if not enforced and implemented unconditionally and fairly.

The case of Liu Xiaobo is highly political.  Thus, in such an authoritarian regime like China, it can be argued that any information threatening to “power elites seeking to maintain their value position” [viii] is highly sensitive and controversial.  The very nature of Charter ’08 manifesto created by Mr. Liu is an ideology of practical political reform—inspired by “a number of documents, including the United States Constitution and the French Declaration of the rights of Man and the Citizen.”

In the Forward for the Charter put forth in December 2008 a translated version reads [ix]:

“The Chinese people, who have endured human rights disasters and uncountable struggles across these same years, now include many who see clearly that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values.

By departing from these values, the Chinese government’s approach to “modernization” has proven disastrous. It has stripped people of their rights, destroyed their dignity, and corrupted normal human intercourse. So we ask: Where is China headed in the twenty-first century? Will it continue with “modernization” under authoritarian rule, or will it embrace universal human values, join the mainstream of civilized nations, and build a democratic system? There can be no avoiding these questions.”

Despite the highly charged political content, and the perceived risk that comes from supporting such beliefs Mr. Liu managed to convince over 300 people – including party members, workers and intellectuals to sign their names.  For purposes of this paper, perhaps one of the most unique characteristics of this current affair is the role the Internet has played.

In 1999, Mr. Liu emerged from prison for the third time in his life.  Already an “inexhaustible writer, poet and piquant social commentator” [x], he was released into a world that now presented a new medium for his expression—the Internet.  Access to the world-wide-web had begun to diffuse throughout China and transform the nature of public discourse. Although apprehensive at first to use a computer as an instrument to further his views, “Mr. Liu quickly became a prolific commentator on overseas Web sites.” [xi]

In the following years Liu would publish over 1,000 articles and define the Internet as “Gods gift to China.”  By harnessing the power and reach of the World Wide Web, Charter ’08 reached a climactic moment, garnering over 10,000 signatures.

But this online movement was short-lived.  The digital life of Charter ’08 was stymied by censors and by December 2009 many of the participants, including Liu Xiaobo were interrogated.

Ultimately, in a two-hour trial last December the Government accused Liu as exceeding his right to free expression “by openly slandering and inciting others to overthrow our country’s state power.” [xii]

Nonetheless, in opposing this verdict, Mr. Liu and his representatives argued that he had simply advocated a gradual and nonviolent change in governance.  In his parting words to the court Mr. Liu articulated his hopes for the future: [xiii]

“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 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 current events surrounding Liu Xiaobo are far-reaching.  At a fundamental level, it highlights the efforts by a Government and its agencies to suppress a form of expression, and control the flow of information that it views as subversive.

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says that, “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression…of all kinds, regardless of frontiers…through any media of his choice.”

Within the statutory language of this international standard the ICCPR also recognizes that these freedoms are not absolute, and that restrictions apply “as are provided by law and are necessary” such as “for the protection of national security or of public order.”

The labeling of Liu Xiaobo and others as “political dissidents” implies a categorization of individuals whose objective is to threaten, disrupt and “subvert” public order.  Under this pretext, efforts to maintain national security, if reasonable, are justified.  Yet, international standards also suggest that, “states may not impair the individual’s right to full participation in the enlightenment process merely on a pretext or to stay in power.” [xiv]

In Section III of Charter ’08, titled “What We Advocate”, paragraph 11 contains the following language about freedom of expression.  [xv]

Para. 11. Freedom of Expression. We should make freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and academic freedom universal, thereby guaranteeing that citizens can be informed and can exercise their right of political supervision. These freedoms should be upheld by a Press Law that abolishes political restrictions on the press. The provision in the current Criminal Law that refers to “the crime of incitement to subvert state power” must be abolished. We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.

Again, in his final December 2009 statement to the court, before being sentenced to 11-years in prison, Liu Xiaobo highlighted what in his view were milestones in China’s gradual progression towards the Party’s concept of rule.

  • In 1998, the Chinese government promised the world it would sign the two international human rights conventions of the U.N.
  • In 2004, the National People’s Congress for the first time inscribed into the constitution that “the state respects and safeguards human rights,” signaling that human rights had become one of the fundamental principles of the rule of law
  • The “present regime” proposed “putting people first” and “creating a harmonious society”

[i] Andre Jacobs, Nobel Peace Prize Given to Jailed Chinese Dissident (Oct. 2010),

[ii] id. 1

[iii] id. 2

[iv] Robert Mackey, Jailed Chinese Dissident’s ‘Final Statement’ (Oct. 2010),

[v] supra, n. 26, at page 2

[vi] supra, n. 29

[vii] supra, n. 1

[viii] supra, n. 1, at page 282

[ix] see generally, Charter 08: Reform and Democracy in China,

[x] supra, n. 26, at page 3

[xi] id.

[xii] supra, n. 29

[xiii] id.

[xiv] supra, n. 1

[xv] supra, n. 34

5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 25, 2012 9:56 am

    True, but funny, as are many of your blogs. I read through
    the past entries over the past week or two, and I must say I think I’m found a new bookmark.

    • October 4, 2012 3:53 pm

      Hello Kuvam…I hope to be getting the motors running again soon. Perhaps even opening the platform to other writers…thank you for reading.


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