Last Thursday (October 19th), a service took place at Washington National Cathedral to commemorate the work and life of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Liu Xiaobo, and celebrate his wife, Beijing-based poet, artist, and activist, Liu Xia. The event included messages from the Dalai Lama, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Congressman Chris Smith, as well as readings of Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia’s works by eminent academics.
It served primarily to remember the achievements of Liu Xiaobo who died in custody on 13 July this year, aged 61. He had been imprisoned since 2008 on charges of “suspicion of inciting subversion”. In May, he was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer and eventually transferred to Shenyang’s First Hospital of China Medical University.
Liu’s entire imprisonment was shrouded in secrecy; he was not allowed to travel abroad to receive medical treatment. This was despite his family’s wishes, and the adjudication of two independent doctors from the United States and Germany that he was “fit for travel”, contrary to the Chinese Government’s previous assertion that his condition prevented him from traveling abroad to receive treatment.
The quality of care that Liu received is unknown, yet Human Rights Watch has reported significant medical neglect in Chinese prisons and detention centres. Berit Reiss-Andersen, the leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said the Chinese government bore “a heavy responsibility for his premature death”. The situation drew comparisons to the last time a Nobel Peace laureate died in state custody. This was in 1938, when Carl von Ossietzky died of tuberculosis under guard in a hospital in Nazi Germany.
Memorial for Liu Xiaobo. Source: Etan Liam.
Through his work as an independent intellectual, Liu was an outspoken critic of the Chinese Communist regime, advocating democratic reform and the proliferation of human rights. As an academic, he became a visiting scholar at several universities including Columbia University, the University of Oslo, and the University of Hawaii.
He returned to China from the U.S. during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, which aimed for democratic reforms including freedom of speech. One of the leading academics behind the largely student-led protests, he played a key role as one of the “four gentlemen” who launched a hunger-strike in solidarity with the students. He drafted the manifesto, containing the slogan “We have no enemies!”. He later helped to broker a deal between the government and protesters for their peaceful exit from the square, amidst the brutal crackdown which left hundreds dead.
His quest for democratic reform did not end there, even as other outspoken figures fell into obscurity: “Others can stop. I can’t,” said Liu. He spent much of the remainder of his life in and out of prisons and labour camps. It was during a stint at one such re-education-through-labour camp that he and his second wife, Liu Xia, were married.
Liu Xiaobo’s final prison sentence began in 2009. He was imprisoned due to his role in drafting the Charter 08 manifesto, published on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the year before. It called for 19 changes, including the elimination of one-party rule, the guarantee of human rights, and freedom of association. The charter was initially signed by 350 Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists, and since its release has amassed over 10,000 signatures.
In 2010, Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in recognition of “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”, becoming the third person to receive the award while in detention after von Ossietzky (1935) and Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi (1991). Thorbjoern Jagland, the chairman of the Nobel committee, told the audience that the award was “dedicated to the lost souls of 4 June [the Tiananmen Square Protests]”. Chinese authorities cracked down on activists in the lead-up to the Ceremony, with many placed under house arrest or surveillance. Beijing was furious at the award, with the official Xinhua agency saying that it had “launch[ed] a new round of China-bashing.”
The Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, by Marta B. Haga/MFA, Oslo. Liu’s seat was empty at the Nobel Ceremony in 2010, as he was not allowed to attend. Source: Flickr
Since the award in 2010, Liu Xia has remained under house arrest and been kept in near total isolation, despite a lack of conviction for any crime. She has been kept out of the public eye for fear that a democratic movement could rally behind her. In one brief appearance outside the trial of her brother, Liu Hui, she wept and shouted: “Tell everybody I’m not free!”.
Her detention was declared arbitrary by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and therefore a breach of her human rights. Despite numerous protests, she remains in isolation. The event on Thursday was also intended to reignite efforts to have her released.
The story of Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia, according to Professor Steve Tsang, reflects the growing confidence of the Chinese government that it can ignore Western criticism. Many international figures offered their condolences over Liu Xiaobo’s death, and some such as British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, called for the Chinese authorities to “lift all restrictions” on his widow, yet, as Tsang argues, the international response was not backed up by anything concrete.
As Sonya Sceats and Shaun Breslin wrote for Chatham house in 2012, China’s economic clout has dissuaded leaders to take a harder line on human rights issues within the Communist state. Chinese diplomats have focused their efforts on rebuking any attack on their human rights record, undermining the Universal Period Review process in doing so. They have continually emphasised a sovereignty-centric approach, criticising human rights investigations as “interference in other countries’ internal affairs under the pretext of defending human rights”.
There is no consensus on how to deal with this ‘Chinese Challenge’, which comes at a pivotal time for the human rights movement; potential beacons for the movement such as the U.S. and the EU have been weakened by recent developments. Yet, events like the one held last Thursday show that Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia’s plight has not yet been forgotten. As Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch’s China director, has said, “The Chinese government’s arrogance, cruelty, and callousness are shocking – but Liu’s struggle for a rights-respecting, democratic China will live on.”