Liu Xiaobo

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It seems there’s been an outpouring of writing about China lately—so much that we actually haven’t been able to keep up with it all (especially since for the China Beat editors, December brings with it the madness and mayhem that mark the end of an academic term). So, before we settle in for the holiday break, we thought we’d bring you a pair of reading round-ups that point to all the pieces we wish we’d been able to write during the past few weeks. We’ll post part I (focusing on Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace prize win) today and part II early next week, then take a break until after the new year.

• At his Forbes blog, Gady Epstein looks at “Life After the Nobel,” concluding with this thought-provoking observation:

Liu Xiaobo will not be forgotten, in no small measure because China’s leaders will keep pressuring the world and their own citizens to forget him.

• Perry Link attended the award ceremony in Oslo on December 10 and discusses the event at the New York Review of Books. It was also announced earlier this month that Harvard University Press will be publishing an anthology of Liu’s writings in 2012, and that Professor Link will be supervising the translation team for the project.

• Jeff Wasserstrom shares his thoughts on Liu and the peace prize, pointing to a few historical analogies to keep in mind, at Dissent magazine’s website. At The Economist’s website, James Miles also takes a look back in time:

Chinese leaders probably failed to anticipate the battering that China’s image abroad would suffer as a result of the awarding of the Nobel peace prize to an imprisoned Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo. They would have expected that their boycott of the award ceremony in Oslo on December 10th would invite comparisons in the West between China and the Soviet Union, which responded with similar fury to the award of the prize to Andrei Sakharov in 1975. It is unlikely they fully realised that their behaviour would be equated even more prominently with that of Nazi Germany.

• Danwei has a collection of humorous Chinese microblog posts discussing “The Lius I admire.”

• Finally, one of the best pieces of news of the year for those interested in China came with the dismissal of Chai Ling’s lawsuit against the Long Bow Group, whose films have been praised on this site in the past and surely will be again in future. As Geremie Barmé, who filled China Beat readers in on the lawsuit and the fight to get it dismissed in an interview published here in 2009, noted when communicating the news of the Long Bow victory to us, there was something deeply ironic about the decision coming on the eve of Liu Xiaobo being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Why? Because, as Barmé put it:

Ms Chai, who has for years tried to censor Long Bow’s work as well as to close down our website, is attending today’s Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in Oslo with her entourage. I presume that they are basking in the reflected parhelic glow of the incarcerated Liu Xiaobo. I would note that in the past Ms Chai and members of her cohort have devoted much time and energy to denouncing Liu Xiaobo and others who dared challenge their account of what they did, and did not do, in 1989. An added irony is that in doing so they have often employed similar rhetoric to that of the Chinese authorities (in this context, see my ‘Totalitarian Nostalgia’).

In addition, Ms Chai has, since the 8 October 2010 announcement of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize, claimed that in actual fact she and Liu Xiaobo had ‘bonded’ in the early hours of 4 June (see this article for more). In [a previous e-mail] I remarked that: ‘Farce always reaches new depths when Ms Chai is involved… Now, if the Nobel Laureate were free to speak….’

Of course, Ms. Chai seems to have found herself on the Road to Damascus before (viz, her conversion to Christianity). In the lead up to 4 June 2010, for instance, she even stated that she’d be dropping her lawsuit against the Long Bow Group, although she didn’t fail to decry us as ‘witless/unknowing tools of Satan’. I would note that these statements, while garnering a few more ephemeral headlines, did not result in any bankable Christian charity.

As for the Jenzabar-Long Bow case, I believe Ms Chai et al will ‘appeal to the highest court in the land’ in their tireless search for truth and justice.

In the meantime, I would like to thank all of those who signed our Long Bow Petition. I’m off to have a glass or two of champers both for Xiaobo and for Long Bow.

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It has now been a little more than one month since the announcement of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize win, with the December 10 award ceremony a bit less than a month away. Here are a few links we’ve come across recently in our search for updates on the story:

• Hat tip to China Digital Times for pointing us to Dai Qing’s November 5 statement concerning her feelings about being one of the 140 individuals named on “Liu Xia’s Grand List,” an invitation to Liu Xiaobo’s friends to attend the award ceremony in his absence:

. . . there is still more than a month before the awards ceremony. The closest friends and comrades of the Laureate, who have been with him through all of the hardship, should be allowed to go to Oslo. But if the authorities ignore all these calls and no one on Liu Xia’s list is permitted to go abroad through the proper procedures, it happens that I am in Canada now for an academic conference.

To comfort Xiaobo in prison and Liu Xia under house arrest, and for all who are on Liu Xia’s list – those who are either under police surveillance or in custody or warned to behave during a forced “tea conversation with the police,” or worse, those “wearing a wig” (a term to describe those hooded and taken away by the security police) – then I shall tell the world that it is not true that no Chinese citizen who fights against authoritarianism will be able to attend the grand ceremony in Oslo. If necessary, I will go there to fulfill my duty to my friend.

I have just received mail from my home, where I learned that the authorities have sent someone to show me their warm regards. I asked a family member to hand this article to the authorities, and I sincerely expect them to report it to their supervisors – as they reported on my activities over the past 20 years. Then at last, perhaps, we will hear good news saying the government has made a gracious decision to allow the most deserving on Liu Xia’s list to travel to Oslo, and leave me, the least deserving person on her list, free to return home to China.

• At East Asia Forum, Julia Lovell writes of “China’s quest for a suitable Nobel,” and David Kelly comments on “Liu Xiaobo and universal values.”

• The Institute of Asian Research’s Asia Pacific Memo site features a series of short video commentaries by Professor Timothy Cheek speaking about Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize (part 1 embedded below).

• Hear both David Kelly and Timothy Cheek speak about Liu on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Here on Earth” show.

• At his Letter from China blog on the New Yorker website, Evan Osnos has been covering the fallout from Liu’s prize in posts such as “Liu Xiaobo: The Official Portrait” and “Paying a Visit.”

• Also at the New Yorker, but only available in full to subscribers, is “Servant of the State” by Jianying Zha, which looks at Liu Xiaobo and the writer Wang Meng.

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By Wang Chaohua

1. The Nobel Peace Prize

What does a Nobel Peace Prize stand for politically? We probably can’t take the written words of Alfred Nobel himself and of the awarding committee at face value. In the past century, the prize has stirred up numerous controversies. For example, a war-mongering, coup-conspiring politician like Henry Kissinger was chosen to be honored, leaving the rest of the world with jaws dropped and the winner himself reluctant to revisit the moment in public. After all, the prize was decided and awarded by a committee of five retired politicians. In addition, no matter how politically balanced each of the actual committee members might be, there could hardly be universal consensus in today’s world as to which candidate is more worthy than the others, and on what grounds. Controversy is almost an integral part of the peace prize.

Yet, bolstered by its sister prizes in other fields — fields of natural sciences in particular — as well as following historical trends towards social justice, democracy, and multi-ethnic, multi-cultural co-existence for “peace,” the Nobel Peace Prize has indeed built up a certain international reputation for itself by awarding the prize, for example, to Martin Luther King, Jr. of the U.S. in 1964, the International Labor Organization in 1969, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar in 1991, Rigoberta Menchú Tum of Guatemala in 1992, and Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank he set up in Bangladesh in 2006. Not surprisingly, the prize’s influence has grown, with matching expectations around the globe. Some activists overlooked by mainstream Western media have tried to draw attention to their causes by lobbying for the prize for one of their own. Likewise, both George W. Bush and Tony Blair were nominated right after they launched the second Iraqi War in 2003; if either had won, it could have indicated an international consensus on the war’s legitimacy. The prize’s symbolic meaning matters to those who oppose the committee’s decision no less than to those who congratulate the chosen laureate(s).

This year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident I know personally from the heady days of the Tiananmen protest of spring 1989. When the news of his winning the prize came through on October 8, it was an exciting and moving moment for me. It is true that we have not seen each other for more than twenty years, though we did maintain some contact before he was arrested in late 2008. He was sentenced to eleven years in prison a year later.

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By Paulina Hartono

Liu Xiaobo is, and now is probably much more so after Friday’s announcement, one of China’s most well-known dissidents—or activists, depending on the term you prefer. Most people who have heard of him know about his hand in penning part of Charter 08, a manifesto based on Charter 77, which advocates broad democratic political reform and human rights protections in China. Those who are more familiar with Liu’s name know of him for his hunger strike in Tian’anmen, or his prolific number of essays published in print and on the Internet.

For his role in drafting Charter 08, and writing six essays, he was sentenced to eleven years in prison on December 25, 2009 for state subversion. The sentence is an extraordinarily harsh one, considering other noted activists like Gao Zhisheng and Hu Jia were also sentenced for state subversion, but received sentences of three and three-and-a-half years, respectively. (For more on “incitement of state subversion,” see Article 105 of PRC Criminal Law.)

There is a well-known phrase in Chinese, 杀鸡儆猴 (shā jī jǐng hóu). Literally, it means “kill the chicken to scare the monkeys,” but should be more properly understood as “punishing one to warn the others.” Arguably, the state used Liu’s heavy sentence as a lesson to others as an example of what happens when one fails to adhere to Party ideology. In so doing, Liu was recast not only as a criminal, but as a pedagogical symbol.

Never mind that some people find the particular six essays to not be particularly reactionary, or wonder about whether Liu contributed so much to the Charter that his name appeared at the top, or if he just acceded to hedging the blow to come. These hinge on personal opinion and speculation, and are therefore moot. However, because Liu’s wishes for political change and human rights have not yet come into being, I think these documents remain firmly within the realm of political thought and speech. Though—or because—they are not concrete, they hold a lot of symbolic power, regardless of one’s subjective reception.

In some ways, the December 2009 sentencing seemed to be a layering of one symbol on top of the next. Now, the 2010 prize conferral appears to be yet another layer. This is largely because the goal of the prize is unclear. From Alfred Nobel’s will:

The said interest shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be apportioned as follows: /- – -/ one part to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.

The prize is in large part, a recognition of an individual’s or group’s efforts. However, it has either had, or has come to have, other purposes as well. I use the following quotes to probe more deeply at this issue.

From Adam Smith, Editor-in-Chief,

An article [Liu] wrote for the South China Morning Post in February 2010 contains the statement “Opposition is not equivalent to subversion”. This sentiment was echoed by the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s remarks, following this year’s Nobel Peace Prize announcement, regarding the sign that they hope this award will send about the importance of supporting debate, and those who champion it, in all countries of the world.

See also the Nobel Peace Prize press announcement:

China’s new status must entail increased responsibility.

Given the prize’s stated prescriptive aim (“this award will send about…”) and its instructive claims (“must entail”), it is arguably also a type of pedagogical symbol.

* * *

Symbols lie within a tricky territory because they are so open to interpretation. Earlier, I wrote that Liu’s work has a lot of symbolic versus concrete power. That is not to rob it of its value in the least. If anything, I think it speaks to the might that is harnessed by a seed of thought, as made manifest through open—while not yet free—speech.

So I do find it somewhat ironic that while the prize is a recognition of freedom of speech advocacy, there won’t be much human rights dialogue going on.

First, because many of Liu’s ideas are rather broad-based, there is no settled understanding of what kind of human rights need to be discussed, or what China’s “entail[ed] increased responsibility” is. Nobody disagrees that China should have better human rights, not even its central government. The points of contention are which specific rights should be protected, how following legislation should be implemented, and in what time frame reforms must take place.

But who are the actors to make such decisions? The international community, or the Chinese state itself? If this prize conferral does not bring human rights dialogue to the table, it will provide heated discussion on national sovereignty and international relations. For one, you will be hard-pressed to find news on Liu’s prize in Chinese-language newspapers. But you will find governmental condemnations of Liu as a criminal, as well as questions over the validity of the Nobel Peace Prize more generally.

Notably, these same articles refer to fractured ties between China and Norway; Norway has effectively become conflated with the Prize Committee. Granted, the Committee’s members are appointed by the Norwegian parliament (Storting), but I think most people conceive of the Nobel Prize Committee as being a supranational entity. Perhaps that is too naive. In any case, clearly the Chinese government does not perceive it as a supranational entity.

Not only this, but Chinese activists have hailed Liu’s selection as indicative of the “West’s recognition.” In this case, the Committee is the West.

Most recently, the U.S. has also been implicated in this symbolic fray; see an Associated Press report “US-China Ties Strained by Dissident.”

A quote from Ma Ying-jeou that states the award is for all Chinese people around the world also lends no clarification to this extremely tangled topic.

In essence, if any human rights dialogue is to happen, we need to know what is going to be talked about, and who is going to talk about it. These very important components have become obfuscated in the past two days.

* * *

In the short-term, I don’t expect any constructive developments. The long-term is of course the big question. But I hope that in the years to come, Liu Xiaobo will not be seen merely as a contentious symbol, a tool utilized by various powers for condemnation or glorification purposes, but as an important human being who had something to say.

* * *

Note: My thoughts on this have been highly influenced by Lydia Liu’s The Clash of Empires: The Invention of China in Modern World Making (2004), and to a lesser degree, James Hevia’s English Lessons: The Pedagogy of Imperialism in Nineteenth-Century China (2003).

Paulina Hartono is a student in East Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is also a frequent contributor to China Digital Times. The above post originally appeared at her blog, _mphatic, on October 9, 2010.

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When we heard of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize win last week, we quickly reached out to a variety of China Beatniks and asked for either their reactions to the news or links to any writings they had done on Liu in the past. Below are some of the responses we received.

Geremie Barmé, the Australian National University

“China’s Promise” (China Beat, January 2010):

On Christmas Day 2009, as a momentous year of anniversaries drew to an end, the Beijing authorities announced that Liu Xiaobo had been sentenced to eleven years in jail for ‘inciting subversion’. According to media reports, this was the longest term given to any offender accused of this particularly nebulous crime since it was introduced in 1997. Ironically, for the two decades since the tragic denouement of the 1989 mass protest movement that pressed for media freedoms and basic rights Liu’s has been a voice of reason and decency. Like patriots who had agitated for the party to make China a modern and civil nation in the 1940s, activists like Liu, and the thousands who signed the Charter 08, have used peaceful means and public protest to appeal to Chinese authorities to respect their own constitution.

As China continues on its path to become a major world influence, it is important that we remain heedful of the complex realities of China’s society and the varying demands of its citizens. As international criticisms of China’s failure to realize a social and political transformation concomitant with its economic achievement, the Chinese authorities have become increasingly anxious to present their monolith version of Chinese reality to the world as the only truly Chinese story worthy of our consideration. The Chinese Party-state, with the support of many citizens nurtured by a guided education and media industry, is now investing massively in presenting what it calls the ‘Chinese story’ (Zhongguode gushi 中国的故事) to the rest of the world. However, in doing this, it constantly limits and censors the variety of stories and narratives that make up the rich skein of human possibility in China itself. To many it would appear self-evident that no political force can or should claim to represent in its entirety or in perpetuity such human richness.

See also this 1990 essay, “Confession, Redemption, and Death: Liu Xiaobo and the Protest Movement of 1989” (originally published in The Broken Mirror: China After Tiananmen and republished in the March 2009 issue of China Heritage Quarterly).

Anne-Marie Brady, University of Canterbury

It is important to understand that when news like this breaks, “frames” and “tifa” (standardized formulations) are already in place that guide the Chinese media. I doubt there’ll be any big banner headlines in China about the prize (at least not negative ones), as the usual strategy is to downplay such events if they reflect unfavourably on China. And as to what the average person in China will think about it all, apart from select circles in Beijing, most of the rest of the country aren’t quite sure who Liu Xiaobo is, and I doubt they’ll get all stirred up by Charter 08 as a result of the prize. I’ve been on the road a bit this last month and everyone is talking about the economy these days—how tough things are getting as costs go up—to most, Liu represents another era remote from their realities. Personally I think he is a great guy, tough, principled and determined. I met him just before his re-arrest in 1996.

Regarding availability of information in China online about Liu getting the award, here in Wuhan my internet connection closed down for a few minutes when I did a search in in Chinese on his name. When it started again I did a search in Chinese for Nobel Peace Prize and the same thing happened again. It also happened when I switched to, my usual access to Google, though I could search for Nobel Peace Prize in English from there. I’m staying in a foreign expert’s apartment with better than average internet access, though no proxy server. You can never assume that if you can see things in Chinese outside China people inside can access them.

Perry Link, University of California, Riverside

“A Nobel Vision of a Better China” (Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2010):

In 2005, China’s President Hu Jintao issued a classified report called “Fight a Smokeless Battle: Keep ‘Color Revolutions’ Out of China.” The report warned against allowing figures like Boris Yeltsin, Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa or Aung San Suu Kyi to appear in China. It borrowed the Chinese idiom “blast the head off the bird that sticks its neck out” to recommend that, when troublemakers appear, “the big ones” should be arrested and “the little ones” left alone.

This formula appears to have been put into practice in November 2008. Shortly after Chinese police discovered that people were signing Charter 08 online, the Communist Party Politburo held a meeting at which Charter 08 was officially declared to be an attempt at “color revolution.” Accordingly, Mr. Liu became “the big one” to target.

There is irony here. The other “color revolution” leaders named in the Hu report had strong political organizations behind them: Mr. Yeltsin was a high-ranking Soviet official, Mr. Mandela led the African National Congress, Mr. Walesa led Solidarity, and Ms. Suu Kyi led a political party that had already won a national election.

Mr. Liu, by comparison, was a free-floating intellectual. If he turns out to be a “big one” of the kind Mr. Hu fears, then Mr. Hu can only blame himself for having made him so. By awarding him the Peace Prize, the Nobel Committee and Communist Party have become unwitting partners in producing what China’s democrats and political dissenters have most needed: a leader of transcendent moral stature to rally around.

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