Under Surveillance—And Celebrating: A dispatch from Beijing: After the Peace Prize, China’s democracy activists remain wary and watched

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By Zhang Zuhua, October 16, 2010 (originally published in The Wall Street Journal)


It has been a busy two weeks in China. Last week, my friend, the imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” Then nearly two dozen Chinese Communist Party elders—some of them highly ranked officials or retired high officials—published a letter this week blasting the government’s clampdown on free expression. And Friday, more than 100 Chinese scholars, rights advocates and citizens (including myself) issued a letter hailing the Nobel Committee’s choice and calling for democratic reforms.


These developments have invigorated the pro-democracy movement here. Yet the most profound condition, living under the rule of China’s one-party state, continues to be the sense of insecurity and fear that arises from the awareness that freedom and human rights are never guaranteed. At any time, a citizen can suffer arbitrary persecution and have no “rights” to fall back on. There can be no confidence about fair treatment in a court of law.


I can offer my own experience as an example. In 2008, I co-wrote a manifesto called Charter 08, calling for greater freedom of expression and human rights and for free elections in China. Just as we were about to announce the Charter that December, police ransacked my home, confiscated books, notes and computers, emptied my family bank accounts and took me in for interrogation. They then released me to “residential surveillance,” which has meant, for nearly two years now, that police officers follow me whenever I go out. During “sensitive periods,” such as an anniversary of the 1989 June Fourth Massacre around Tiananmen Square, they prevent me from leaving my building at all. My case, of course, is unusual. But cases like mine are sufficiently known to make insecurity widespread.


I was subject to new attention last week when Xiaobo, who is now serving an 11-year sentence in part for his work on Charter 08, won the Nobel. A swarm of police and security officials camped out on the doorstep of my apartment building. Dozens more plainclothes personnel wearing red arm bands patrolled the gate of my apartment compound.


The local chief of public security, in a commanding voice, read to me the instructions that his superiors had laid down: Effective immediately, I was under “tight surveillance.” I had to report to the police and get their permission whenever I wanted to leave home. I could ride only in police cars. I am forbidden to speak with reporters from international media. If I disobey any of this, “the consequences will be severe.” The purpose of this phrase was to remind me that the small scope of personal freedom I now enjoy can be removed at any time. (There is, of course, risk involved in writing an article such as this, but I am not going to stop expressing my views.)

I pointed out that the chief’s prohibitions violated not only international human rights conventions but the words of China’s own constitution and laws. The chief answered that he works for the Party and that his job is to do what he is told.

Many of Xiaobo’s friends and colleagues have been treated similarly in recent days. In the short run, we have to anticipate that such treatment will continue.


Among those who have suffered the greatest harm, though, are Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia. He and I participated in the 1989 pro-democracy protests. In past years, when we had a bit more space, we met at least once a week, with other friends, to play badminton and talk and dine. But Xiaobo’s efforts to bring freedom, democracy and human rights to China have landed him in prison four times. Added together, his sentences amount to a bit over 15 years. Liu Xia has endured “soft detention” and harassment by police for many years. These conditions have made it impossible for the couple to enjoy normal family life and have kept them from the full pursuit of their original vocations. (Liu Xiaobo is a writer and literary critic; Liu Xia a novelist and artist.)


The strains of imprisonment, detention and harassment have taken their toll. Liu Xiaobo has suffered gastric disorders and hepatitis; he is now 55 and, if he serves his full term, will be 65 when released. Liu Xia has struggled for years with nervous exhaustion and severe insomnia. Within hours of the announcement of the Nobel Prize, her telephone and Internet connections were cut off, and she was put under house arrest, meaning that she cannot leave home without permission and a police escort. Police did allow her to visit her husband after the announcement of the prize—he is imprisoned 300 miles from Beijing—and the two talked for one hour under police guard.


Liu Xiaobo told Liu Xia that the Nobel Prize should be for those who lost their lives in the June Fourth massacre. Indeed, the prize is a great triumph for all Chinese people. For the first time, the Nobel Peace Prize has gone to a Chinese citizen living inside China. (The Dalai Lama, a Chinese citizen in Beijing’s technical definition, won the prize in exile in 1989.)


I learned of the news from the Internet, as did many of my fellow activists: We use proxy sites to get past the government firewall and read news sources outside of China. Some of us broke down in tears. There were reports on Twitter of fireworks on university campuses immediately after the announcement. Many gathered in restaurants or at friends’ houses to celebrate all over the country. Some activists distributed fliers in the streets. Some walked the cities, telling anybody they ran into the good news. They did this with a sense of mission, to break down official censorship and to tell the ordinary people who Liu Xiaobo is and what he did.


In my view, the prize is not just for Xiaobo, or even just for those who lost their lives in the Tiananmen massacre. It is also a prize for the more than 10,000 Chinese citizens who dared to sign their names to Charter 08. And it is for the tens of thousands of Chinese citizens who have persisted for decades in peaceful struggle to bring freedom, democracy and human rights to fruition in China. What’s more, the prize stands as a rebuttal to the claim that a “Chinese model” of market authoritarian development is a good formula for the modern world.


The Communist Party likes to say that the ideas of Charter 08 are “unacceptable to the Chinese people.” But their repression of the Charter shows that, at a deeper level, they know that this claim is false. If they really believed it, they would publish the Charter in the People’s Daily and let the supposed popular disgust flow forth. The fact that they dare not do this gives us hope, and leaves us with no doubt that the Nobel Committee has performed a splendid service to the Chinese people.


—Zhang Zuhua is a co-author of Charter 08. He writes from Beijing.

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