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Minky Worden

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Liu Xiaobo and China's Future

Posted: 06/27/09 01:13 PM ET

"He's an intellectual, a nerd. He only has a pen and a piece of paper."
--Liu Xia, the wife of arrested Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo


It's hard to believe, but the man described by his wife as a "nerd" is apparently a security threat to an emerging superpower. China has progressed in many vital ways in the two decades since the June 1989 Tiananmen crackdown on peaceful protesters. But the recent arrest of Liu Xiaobo, a mild-mannered and witty writer in Beijing, shows that the government still lacks the confidence to tolerate political criticism.

This week Chinese authorities formally arrested Liu, a leading intellectual who spent nearly two years in prison after the Tiananmen crackdown, and who has been held incommunicado since his detention last December 8. He was charged with "alleged agitation activities aimed at subversion of the government and overthrowing of the socialist system," and faces 15 years in prison. Liu's apparent "crime" is that he is seeking reform as one of the more prominent signers of Charter 08, a petition calling for a greater respect of the rule of law and human rights in China. Charter 08 was released two days after Liu's arrest, on December 10 -- a date celebrated worldwide as Human Rights Day.

Two years ago I came to know Liu Xiaobo remotely, when he contributed a chapter to China's Great Leap, a book I edited on thirty years of change in China and the human rights hurdles to the 2008 Beijing Games. China's writers are good judges of the challenges their writing poses to the authorities, and I felt it was essential to include voices from inside the country in a book about China. As I wrote in my acknowledgments, I was heartened by the fact that several contributors wrote and edited chapters from inside China, which I took as "proof that at least in some respects, the country is more free than it once was."

Most of all, I appreciated Liu's lively writing. His chapter was submitted in Chinese and unfortunately too few of his writings are available in English for the world to appreciate his sharp sense for detail and clever writing style. Liu turned a wry eye on the Olympian circus in Beijing, calling the city a "hot wok of nationalism." He ended his chapter on a prophetic note: "Unless the Chinese government can be persuaded to undertake meaningful human rights forms, the flickering hope for a truly better China could vanish once the flame of the Olympic Torch has been extinguished." Despite China's official assurances that hosting the Olympic Games would help to strengthen the development of human rights in the country, Liu was right.

The Beijing Games led to a worsening of human rights in China: residents were evicted from their homes to make way for Olympic venues, migrant workers built venues under hazardous conditions, and protests were banned. Journalists and the internet were censored, despite the Chinese government's express media freedom pledges. Perhaps most damaging to the long-term prospects for reform in China, before, during and after the 2008 Olympic Games, many courageous members of civil society and rights defenders were harassed, unlawfully detained, subjected to "disappearances," and some were given long prison sentences. They had mistakenly taken their own government at its word that there would be more space for rights in China.

And it is that same determination to continue the fight for basic freedoms that inspired Charter 08, which does not call for an overthrow of the Chinese government but rather for constitutional reform and a greater respect of human rights. The document's preamble states 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." It is a high form of irony that Liu and others who have exercised their basic rights to press for reform have become poignant examples of the Chinese government's failure to live up to its own constitution.

Originally signed by 303 Chinese citizens including rights defenders and legal activists, Charter 08 was circulated online and has now collected close to 10,000 signatures -- despite Beijing's efforts to suppress its availability on the Internet.

A former professor of literature who headed the Chinese section of the international writers' organization PEN, Liu has already paid a heavy price for seeking to exercise the right to free expression. In addition to being jailed for his support of Tiananmen Square protesters, he was sentenced in 1996 to three years of reeducation-through labor after circulating a petition for freedom of speech and the right to form independent political parties in China.

Last December 22, an international group of rights defenders, lawyers and writers -- including three Nobel Prize winners -- sent Chinese President Hu Jintao an open letter calling for Liu's release. They wrote, "For the international community to take seriously China's oft-stated commitment to respect human rights and the rule of law....it is urgent that China's central leadership ensure that no one be arrested or harassed simply for the peaceful expression of his or her views."

The Chinese government has consistently said that it wants the world to view China as a "responsible power." The best way to prove this would be to free Liu Xiaobo and allow an open discussion on the merits of Charter 08, a document which -- like Liu himself -- represents China's future rather than its past.