UPDATE: International television broadcasts went dark in China Friday as the Nobel Prize Committee, citing "his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China," announced that Liu Xiabo was indeed the 2010 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. The following article was published on Wednesday, before the announcement. - FP
Most international awards are eagerly coveted by the Chinese government, but there are exceptions. One of the names being mentioned for the Nobel Peace Prize this year is Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese writer and political essayist currently serving an 11-year prison term for his crusading views. He is one of China's most famous dissidents, known for his unflinching advocacy for free expression, human rights, and democracy over two decades. In 2009, he was charged with "incitement to subvert state power and overthrow the socialist system" as a result of his role in drafting "Charter 08," a political manifesto calling for gradual political reforms in China, and for authoring several other online essays critical of the government published between 2005 and 2007.
Born in 1955 in the northeastern industrial city of Changchun, Liu received a degree in literature from Jilin University and moved to Beijing to continue his studies. After obtaining a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Beijing Normal University, he started teaching there as a lecturer. In late 1988 he became a visiting scholar at Columbia University, but cut short his stay to participate in the 1989 Chinese democracy movement. In the early hours of June 4, 1989, as the People's Liberation Army rolled into Beijing and closed in on the remaining students in Tiananmen Square, Liu acted as a negotiator between the students and the troops, ultimately brokering a deal that allowed many students to avoid the bloodshed witnessed in other parts of the capital.
Labeled by the government as a "ringleader" and a "black hand" of the student movement, Liu was arrested on June 6 and spent 18 months in Qincheng Prison on charges of "counterrevolution." He was ultimately released in January 1991, but barred from teaching or holding any academic position. He continued to write essays in favor of freedom of expression and human rights, gaining a national and international following as "China's conscience" for his unflinching, selfless, and peaceful advocacy for his ideals. In 1995 he was placed under house arrest and later sentenced to three years of "re-education through labor" for a series of essays criticizing the government. Upon his release in October 1999, Liu continued to write critical essays, mostly published overseas but widely circulated inside China.
Then on Dec. 8, 2008, Liu was arrested again. It was the eve of Human Rights Day, the date that the more than 300 original Chinese signatories had chosen for the publication of Charter 08.
Charter 08 was consciously modeled after Charter 77, the pathbreaking document published in 1977 in which Czech and Slovak intellectuals courageously pledged "to strive individually and collectively for respect for human and civil rights in our country and throughout the world." It called for an end to the Communist Party's one-party rule and the establishment of a system based on human rights, the rule of law, and democracy in the former state of Czechoslovakia. Liu is sometimes called the Vaclav Havel of China.
"The Chinese people," wrote the Charter 08 signatories, "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."
Charter 08, drafted over several months, did not come to the attention of Chinese authorities until several days before it was to be released. After Liu's arrest, a large-scale coordinated police operation was launched to "root out the organizers" and prevent the distribution of Charter 08. In the following weeks and months, the police interviewed each of the 303 initial signatories, among them writers, lawyers, journalists, academics, former party members, and ordinary citizens, stressing that the Chinese authorities thought that Charter 08 was "different" from earlier dissident statements and "a fairly grave matter."
The Chinese government may have been initially worried about a possible global outcry over the arrest of the country's most famous dissident. However, the international diplomatic response was at best muted.