A champion of basic rights who refuses to be silenced


LIU XIAOBO is a classic dissident in the cold war mode – a chain-smoker, a deeply intellectual academic with a wry sense of humour and a peacenik with a powerful commitment to his democratic beliefs. And now a Nobel laureate.

The former professor at Beijing Normal University has long been the most consistent among China’s scattered group of dissidents, and until his sentencing last year after a speedy trial on Christmas Day, he has been a passionate advocate of peaceful, gradual political change, rather than violent confrontation.

A thorn in the Beijing government’s side ever since he went on hunger strike in support of the student pro-democracy demonstrators on Tiananmen Square in June 1989, Liu also prevented more bloodshed by successfully negotiating with the army the evacuation of the last remaining students on Tiananmen Square on June 4th.

After the student democracy movement was crushed, he was jailed for 20 months. In 1996 he was again jailed for co-writing an open letter that demanded the impeachment of then-president Jiang Zemin and sent to a labour camp for three years, where he met his wife Liu Xia.

Over the years he has spent months under house arrest, until he was detained following his most daring act, the publication on December 10th, 2008, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of Charter 08, a document inspired by the Czech and Slovak Charter 77 drafted by dissidents there to protest against Soviet rule.

It was the publication of Charter 08 that brought Liu an 11-year sentence, one of the longest sentences handed out to a political dissident since the crime of inciting subversion was established in 1997.

Liu’s wife is allowed to visit her husband once a month in prison and they are allowed to talk for one hour each time.

Giving Liu the award means 10 years of constant reminder for Beijing that it has a Nobel laureate languishing in one of its jails. The constant media attention to Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest in Rangoon, is something that Beijing will be keen to avoid.

Granting the award to Liu will bring the spotlight on other prominent human rights defenders in jail, including jailed HIV/Aids activist Hu Jia.

“This award can only make a real difference if it prompts more international pressure on China to release Liu, along with the numerous other prisoners of conscience languishing in Chinese jails for exercising their right to freedom of expression,” said Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International Ireland.

Charter 08 is the closest thing to a pro-democracy movement that China has seen for years. It has called for a constitution guaranteeing human rights, the open election of public officials and freedom of religion and expression.

Since Charter 08 was released, more than 8,000 activists inside and outside China have signed it. Scores of the original 303 signatories have been interrogated by security forces and blacklisted by the Chinese media.

Many people who support Liu’s cause, and that of the Charter 08 movement, wear yellow ribbons to show their allegiance.

China has made huge advances during 30 years of reform, and its people are freer now than ever, but they have little freedom in the way of political rights.

As well as dealing with democracy in China, Liu has also spoken out on other issues, such as the treatment of Tibetans by the Chinese government.