In December of 2008, 303 Chinese activists, lawyers, intellectuals, academics, retired government officials, workers and peasants supported and signed a manifesto, Charter 08, that called for an end to autocratic rule and a move towards a constitutional government that would respect human rights and institute democratic reforms. Despite the obvious threat this posed to the Chinese government and its continued repression of those holding disparate views, Charter 08 gained a nation-wide audience through the Internet. The signatories to this charter reached ten thousand; the government's response was both swift and brutal. Dozens, if not hundreds, were called in for questioning, and a handful of those regarded as the incipient movement's "ring leaders" were detained. Promotions of professors were held up, research grants denied and travel abroad was curtailed for those who were considered to be the instigators. Newspapers and publishing houses were ordered to blacklist any signatories. Liu, a prominent writer, vociferous dissident and one of the important drafters of the Charter was arrested on December 2009 and was subsequently sentenced to eleven years in prison.
The following is an excerpt taken from the preamble of the Charter: "China, as a great nation of the world, one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and a member of the Human Rights Council, ought to make its own contribution to peace for humankind and progress in human rights. Regrettably, however, of all the great nations of the world today, China alone still clings to an authoritarian way of life and has, as a result, created an unbroken chain of human rights disasters and social crises, held back the development of the Chinese people, and hindered the progress of human civilization. This situation must change! We cannot put off political democratization reforms any longer. Therefore, in the civic spirit of daring to take action, we are issuing Charter 08. We hope that all Chinese citizens who share this sense of crisis, responsibility, and mission, whether officials or common people and regardless of social background, will put aside our differences to seek common ground and come to take an active part in this citizens' movement, to promote the great transformation of Chinese society together, so that we can soon establish a free, democratic, and constitutional nation, fulfilling the aspirations and dreams that our countrymen have been pursuing tirelessly for more than a hundred years."
Before we examine Liu's life in greater detail, we will embark on a cursory examination of recent Chinese political history. China is a vast country that has the longest continual history for any human civilization. We will, however, restrict our attention to the era encompassing the latter part of the ninteenth century to the present.
Between the years 1894-1895 China was involved in a war with Japan – the first Sino-Japanese War, in which it suffered defeat. At that time the Qing Court was ruling the country and it was involved in a brutal suppression of all attempts at reform. The Xinhai Revolution (1911) supplanted the imperial system that had been extant for over 2000 years and established Asia's first republic. Attempts at democratization and political reform were curtailed, however, by foreign invasion and civil conflict.
China ultimately became victorious in the War of Resistance against Japan (1937–1945), and the People's Republic of China was formed in 1949 after the Communist defeat of nationalist forces under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek, whose efforts were supported by the United States. Mao Zsetung was instrumental in leading the communists to victory and became the country's chairman.
Once in power, Chairman Mao instituted a number of radical national policies that proved horribly disastrous. One was the so-called, Great Leap Forward (1958-1963) and the other was the Cultural Revolution (1965-1968).
The Great Leap Forward was instituted in order to develop China's agriculture and industrial base. To implement this ambitious goal, China was restructured into a series of communes according to Mao's vision.
The size of the communes were not fixed, but most consisted of about 5000 families. Within these communities, tools, agricultural equipment, farm animals were all shared. Everyone worked for the commune - the life of the individual was thoroughly constrained and controlled. Families were divided into teams – each team consisting of twelve families and twelve teams made up a brigade. Every aspect of living was under the direct management of the party.
By the end of 1958, 700 million individuals had been placed in 26,578 communes. In the beginning, the progress towards the goals of agricultural and industrial development seemed impressive. However, the pragmatic aspirations of this radical approach eventually became subsumed by an extremist political agenda that placed an emphasis on reaching impossible goals rather than on real and reliable production. This reality was exacerbated by poor growing seasons in 1959 and 1960. As a result, it has been estimated that some nine million people died of starvation by 1960. This number had risen to twenty million deaths by 1962. Ultimately, Chairman Mao admitted that the Great Leap Forward had been a failure.
The other notable failure of the Communist Party under the direction of Chairman Mao was the Cultural Revolution that occurred between the years of 1965 and 1968. It is believed that Mao instituted this policy in an attempt to reassert his absolute authority that was beginning to dissipate. The movement was initiated with a speech by Lin Piao, the Chinese Communist military commander (1907-1971), who encouraged students from schools and colleges to actualize the basic precepts of the revolutionary movement. These students were also encouraged to openly criticize liberal elements of the Party.
Beneath the rhetoric was the underlying fear that intellectuals, academics and the professional class were accruing too much power. Mao was concerned that a new class of Mandarins was beginning to emerge in the new China. The propaganda that was promulgated as an essential aspect of the Cultural Revolution inspired the creation of so-called "Red Guards." Members of the Red Guards were encouraged to openly attack those who were suspected of having a superior and condescending attitude. Chief among these was Mao's rival, Liu Shao-chi.
The supposed rationale for this movement was the desire to create a truly classless society. However, the movement rapidly got out of hand and the social climate became dangerously chaotic. It was then that Zhou Enlai, the first Premier of the People's Republic of China until his death in 1976, urged a return to normal conditions. Finally, in October of 1968 Liu Shao-chi was removed from the party. Once Mao's main rival was no longer a threat, he saw no need to continue the Cultural Revolution.
Mao died on September 9, 1976. After his death, there were major social, economic, and political reforms instituted. The era dominated by the cult of personality finally came to a close. In regards to the post-Mao Zedong era in China, Liu addresses it this way:
"The "Reform and Opening Up" of the late 20th century extricated China from the pervasive poverty and absolute totalitarianism of the Mao Zedong era, and substantially increased private wealth and the standard of living of the common people. Individual economic freedom and social privileges were partially restored, a civil society began to grow, and calls for human rights and political freedom among the people increased by the day. Those in power, while implementing economic reforms aimed at marketization and privatization, also began to shift from a position of rejecting human rights to one of gradually recognizing them. In 1997 and 1998, the Chinese government signed two important international human rights treaties.2 In 2004, the National People's Congress amended the Constitution to add that "[the State] respects and guarantees human rights." And this year, the government has promised to formulate and implement a "National Human Rights Action Plan." But so far, this political progress has largely remained on paper: there are laws, but there is no rule of law; there is a constitution, but no constitutional government; this is still the political reality that is obvious to all."
Liu was born in December of 1955 in Changchun, Jilin and grew up during this tumultuous era. He was born into a family of intellectuals. As a matter of fact, his father took him to Inner Mongolia in the rural countryside – a move that was mandated as a part of the Cultural Revolution as discussed earlier. As a young man Liu was accepted into Julin University and graduated with a B.A. in literature. From there, he received in M.A. degree in literature from Beijing Normal University in 1984 and became a teacher. It was during this time that Liu began to openly express in writing his criticism of Chinese culture and especially the authoritarian nature of the Chinese political system as he had begun to understand it. In June of 1988, he received his PhD in literature, and published his thesis entitled, Aesthetic and Human Freedom. He subsequently travelled to Columbia University in New York and the Universities of Hawaii and Oslo where he was guest lecturer.
He returned to China abruptly in 1989 when the now famous protests at Tiananmen Square began in earnest. He was unabashedly pro-West in his political views and sentiments to the extent that he was quoted as saying, "…Westernization is not a choice of a nation, but a choice for the human race." As part of the protest movement, Liu began a three day hunger strike along with three others. He encouraged dialog between representatives of the government and students. Although his efforts could not prevent the massacre that occurred on the night of June 3, he did manage to facilitate negotiations between the army and students that allowed several thousand students to peacefully withdraw. On June 6, Liu was arrested and held in Qincheng Prison and subsequently expelled from Beijing Normal University; all his publications were also banned.
In January 1991, some nineteen months following his original arrest, he was convicted of, counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement." He was not jailed, however, on account of the fact that the judiciary recognized the actions that he took at Tiananmen Square that helped avoid significant bloodshed. After his release, he returned to writing; although, he was not allowed to publish on mainland China. This did not deter him; he published his first book, The Monologues of a Doomsday Survivor in Taiwan.
Liu was considered such a serious threat to the government that he was subject to constant police harassment and within the space of the next fourteen years he was arrested twice, put under house arrest and at one point a police sentry post was constructed next to his residence. In spite of all of these attempts to suppress his influence in regards to the pro-democracy movement, Liu never relented or altered his resolve to encourage reform.
As mentioned earlier Liu played an instrumental role in the inception and writing of Charter 08 which was released on December 10, 2008 – a date that purposefully coincided with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document called for greater individual freedoms, an end to human rights abuses, more democratic elections and Western-style economic reform. This document was met with such popular approval that 10,000 signatures were collected by September prior to its release. As a consequence, Liu was arrested for his participation. On December 25, 2009, he was sentenced to eleven years of imprisonment. The charge was, "Inciting subversion of state power."
Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 2010 "for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China". Being in prison, he was unable to attend the award ceremony. In his absence, the following is an excerpt of what was read on his behalf:
"…For hatred is corrosive of a person's wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation's spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society's tolerance and humanity, and block a nation's progress to freedom and democracy. I hope therefore to be able to transcend my personal vicissitudes in understanding the development of the state and changes in society, to counter the hostility of the regime with best of intentions and defuse hate with love…"
Although Liu may currently be incarcerated, the ideas he has fostered and encouraged among his own people cannot be as easily silenced. Over the long term, his efforts will prove to be of significant value, for the human thirst for liberation will eventually be heard.