The first Chinese citizen to receive a Nobel Prize, Liu Xiaobo is a poet and literary critic who has come to prominence over the last two decades as one of the most visible leaders of China’s pro-democracy movement. Currently serving an 11 year prison term, he is the third Nobel Peace Laureate to be under arrest at the time of the award, the others being Carl von Ossietzky and Aung San Suu Kyi.
In 1989, Liu Xiaobo cut short his visiting position at New York’s Columbia University to return to China and take part in the student occupation of Tiananmen Square. In the face of the army crackdown, he was instrumental in maintaining the non-violent nature of the protest. Liu Xiaobo spent two years in prison for his role in the protests, and was then subject to a further 3 years of ‘re-education through labour’ in the late 1990s for advocating an end to one party rule in China.
His current imprisonment, for “inciting subversion of state power”, was imposed for statements in recently-published essays and the 2008 document he helped write, Charter 08. Modelled on Charter 77, a petition demanding the recognition of human rights in Czechoslovakia and drawn up by writers and intellectuals in 1977, Charter 08 is a declaration calling for political reforms and increased human rights in China. The declaration reiterates certain ‘universal values’ such as freedom, equality, democracy and constitutional rule and makes recommendations for, among other things, a new constitution, an independent judiciary, the election of public officials and a guarantee of human rights.
Charter 08 has now collected several thousand signatures from Chinese citizens from all walks of life. Liu Xiaobo was arrested just before its official release and sentenced a year later, just over a month before the close of nominations for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, at a trial to which Chinese and foreign observers were denied access. Liu Xiaobo has continued to write from prison, releasing a statement through one of his lawyers, 10 days after sentencing, which read: “I have made sacrifices with no regrets. For an intellectual thirsty for freedom in a dictatorial country, prison is the very first threshold. Now I have stepped over the threshold, and freedom is near.”
An article he wrote for the South China Morning Post in February 2010 contains the statement “Opposition is not equivalent to subversion”. This sentiment was echoed by the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s remarks, following this year’s Nobel Peace Prize announcement, regarding the sign that they hope this award will send about the importance of supporting debate, and those who champion it, in all countries of the world.