Paul Lau (Hong Kong, AC 10-12), Adrian Leong (Hong Kong, AC 10-12)
After weeks of intense dialogue, political positing and lots of news reports, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo of China on the 8th October 2010 for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”. At the same time, all news channels that were reporting the announcement on TVs in China went blank for a few minutes, leaving most of China without knowledge that a Chinese person had won a Nobel Peace Prize.
In 1989, Liu Xiaobo had just returned to China from Columbia University where he was a visiting scholar as Tiananmen protests broke out. Liu became involved in the movement and was amongst the four who went on a hunger strike. As the military moved in, they persuaded students to leave, saving hundreds of lives. In the ensuing crackdown, Liu was jailed, released in 1991 and jailed again from 1996 to 1999. During this time, he was sentenced to a “re-education-through-labour” camp for “spreading rumors and libel” and “disturbing public order”
In 2008, Liu along with some 300 other intellectuals and activists drew up the ‘Charter 08’ manifesto calling for free speech and multi-party elections. Charter 08 was inspired by Charter 77, the bold call for political reform by intellectuals in Czechoslovakia that shook Eastern European totalitarian regimes. Liu decided to put his name first in the list of signatories shortly before it was published, knowing full well that he would bear the brunt of the resulting crack-down. The publication was quickly picked-up on both internationally and within China and Liu was arrested by the police on 8 Dec 2008, two days before the charter was actually released. Liu was subsequently sentenced to 11 years in jail, but not before thousands of Chinese residents had also signed the manifesto.
China has long harbored the desire to win a Nobel Prize. Her government was furious that the first such prize went to Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in 1989, who does not reside in China. The second Nobel Prize went to Charles Kao of Hong Kong for optic-fiber technology in 2009. Ultimately, it took until 2010 for a Chinese person living in mainland China to be awarded the Nobel Prize. However, instead of joy, the Chinese government called it “an obscenity against the peace prize” and that it would hurt Sino-Norwegian relations.
Neither CCTV nor Xinhua, the country’s official TV and news service, made any mention of Liu’s award. Popular sites such as Sina and NetEase even went as far as deleting pages dedicated to stories related to the Nobel Prizes. Hong Kong’s TVB station’s evening news broadcast was blocked for around 8 minutes, removing any mention of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Despite the government’s attempt to censor the news, many ordinary citizens learned of the story via the internet and telephone text messages. Online forums and Twitter sprang to life just moments after the announcement while photos and posts of Liu appeared on Sina’s microblog before being removed. Most comments on sites were supportive of Liu and the fight for democracy, although interestingly, some expressed bewilderment at having never heard of Liu or the Charter 08 movement. Text messages containing Liu’s name were automatically blocked, forcing people to just phone each other.
On the Nobel Foundation’s website which announced that Liu had been awarded the prize, someone who identified himself as “a Chinese citizen” wrote “I was astonished for not knowing the existence of this man as a Chinese. What a shameful evidence of Chinese people having no human rights.”
Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, was prohibited from leaving her apartment in Beijing on the day the award was given to cut her off from any communication with people from the outside, and was later asked to leave Beijing for Liaoning to meet her husband. Her earlier statements that she had little expectations of Liu wining were a marked difference from many who had deemed the award a certainty, with one betting agency paying out even before the announcement was made. Liu Xiaobo dedicated the award to those who died in Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989 saying “the award is first and foremost for the Tiananmen martyrs”.
With the prize to be awarded in Oslo on the 10th of December, there is still not a single word on who will pick up the prize. Many hope that Liu Xiaobo will be released from prison and allowed to fly to Oslo, although there is a likelihood that he would not be allowed to return after this departure. Liu Xia had previously said “As my friends have said, how can they keep a Nobel Peace Prize in Jinzhou Prison?”
In Hong Kong, 23 legislative councilors signed a joint letter to President Hu Jintao, urging the central government to free the imprisoned writer so that he can travel to Norway on December 10 to receive his prize. Through labour unions and rights groups in other countries, invitations for past winners to join a petition calling for Liu’s release have been sent out by HK lawmakers.
Even in mainland China, an open letter from 200 mainland intellectuals and activists urged Beijing to release Liu Xiaobo and to seize this as a new chance to embrace democracy peacefully. The letter was drafted in Chinese, English, French and Japanese and was posted on the internet calling Liu a “splendid choice” and “calling upon Chinese authorities to respond to the peace prize with rationality and realism, and to take stock of warm responses from home and abroad to gain clear understanding of the world’s opinion and where people have placed their hearts”
Xu Youyu, philosophy professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was one of the four drafters along with Mo Zhixu, a freelance writer. This is a clear sign that the demand for democracy has gone beyond activists and dissidents and into the mainstream with former officials and public figures all joining the call, in their own way, for more political freedom in China.
While numerous questions remain as to whether Liu will be able to receive the prize in person this December– what Liu Xia’s predicament is and whether China’s response to the prize was correct– there is no doubt that the award will have, if not already have had, a profound effect on the democratic movement in China.
-United World Colleges Student Magazine-