In China, a Nobel Peace Prize winner remains behind bars

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Originally published by Nikkei Asian Review on December 11, 2016

HONG KONG — Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos on Saturday received his Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end a civil war that had raged for more than half a century. The medal and honor was conferred to him in person from the chairperson of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, in the presence of King Harald V of Norway, in Oslo City Hall.

Six years ago on this day, Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese literary critic and poet, was awarded the same prize. However, he and his wife, Liu Xia, were not allowed to leave the country to attend the ceremony. Liu Xiaobo was and remains locked up in a prison cell in northeastern China. In Beijing, Liu Xia stays under house arrest.

Not since 1936 had imprisonment kept the prize’s winner from showing up in Oslo. Back then, it was Carl von Ossietzky who was paying the price for speaking up. He had been selected for the award a year earlier.

Ossietzky was a German journalist and one of the Nazis’ foremost critics.

Liu Xiaobo was among the authors of a manifesto known as “Charter 08,” issued on this day in 2008 to mark the 60th anniversary of the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The charter calls for the rule of law, respect for human rights and an end to one-party rule.

Right before the charter was made public, Liu Xiaobo was detained. On Christmas day in 2009, after two trials, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion to state power.”

Since then, Beijing seems to have made every effort to eradicate Liu Xiaobo from the country’s collective memory.

In Hong Kong, though, reminders of Liu’s contribution to society still flow.

On a main shopping street here in Causeway Bay, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, or the Hong Kong Alliance, on Saturday was asking people to sign Christmas cards to be sent to Liu and to indicate their support for “Charter 08.”

Andrew Wan Siu-kin, a board member of the group and a Democratic Party legislator, told the Nikkei Asian Review that this annual drive in support of political prisoners in China, including Liu, is to “keep the spotlight on these people and to provide indirect protection for them.”

He fears that once attention dissipates, even more harm could be done to those who have spoken up for rights in China. “So, we keep shouting,” he said. “And we want to draw international support not to forget these people.”

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch is also not letting go of the issue.

“Although he never should have been in prison in the first place,” said Sophie Richardson, the group’s director for China, “we need to remind Beijing that he’s going to come out from prison.”

Richardson was in Hong Kong to present the latest investigative report on the extralegal detention system, known as shuanggui, that President Xi Jinping uses in his war on corruption. She worries that as people’s memories wane, Beijing could sweep matters under the rug.

“My fear,” she said, “is that if people don’t make very clear [their expectations of Liu Xiaobo being released after his term], it’s much easier for them to hang on to him longer.”

Richardson, who represented her organization in Oslo six years ago, wishes for people across China to continue recognizing and keeping in mind Liu’s “incredible victory.”

China’s record on human rights has been underwhelming at best. The network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders, or CHRD, with peer organizations in mainland China, last month issued a report. It indicates “large discrepancies between the [Chinese] government’s promises and its actions related to protecting and promoting human rights,” said Renee Xia, the CHRD‘s international director. China’s “overall human rights situation has worsened over the past three years.”

The period more or less coincides with Xi’s rise to power, which began in the fall of 2012.

The report also says Beijing’s responses to questions on human rights claims lack sincerity.

The U.N.’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and its Special Rapporteur on Torture in 2013 sent a joint urgent action to Beijing that raised concern on Liu Xia: She seemed to be under house arrest for no reason other than being married to Liu Xiaobo. Beijing’s response was that Liu Xia is a “woman of 53 years of age … originally comes from Beijing [and is in] fairly good” health. It went on to say that no Chinese public security body has “adopted any legal or compulsory measures with regard to her.”

The CHRD report notes that this kind of response is “typical [and] illustrates China’s lack of constructive cooperation.”

Frances Eve, a CHRD researcher based in Hong Kong, spoke to the NAR about the matter. “Though the Chinese government tries to portray itself as a responsible member of the international community,” she said, “it remains the only country in the world imprisoning a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

“Actions speak louder than words, and China should release Liu Xiaobo and his wife, Liu Xia, from arbitrary detention and show it’s willing to respect fundamental human rights.”

Liu Xiaobo’s arrest is not only a breach of international agreements Beijing has signed but illegal under its own constitution. Article 35 spells out that Chinese citizens “enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.”

In addition, Article 41 states that citizens of China “have the right to criticize and make suggestions to any state organ or functionary.”

As the Norwegian Nobel Committee pointed out when awarding the peace prize to Liu Xiaobo, “[I]n practice, these freedoms have proved to be distinctly curtailed for China’s citizens.”

Six years on, and matters seem to have only deteriorated. Yet Albert Ho Chun-yan, chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance, has a different view. The more the Xi government clamps down on freedom, Ho said, the more it shows that it is growing paranoid.

“If they are confident of their strength and trust their own people,” he said, Chinese leaders would “not have to be so afraid of their people and [would] not have to exercise [such a] tight grip over the whole country, including control [of] popular opinion.”

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