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The strange destinies of Liu Xiaobo and Wen Jiabao

By Clude Arpi
Last updated on: October 08, 2010 16:25 IST
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Clude Arpi salutes the Nobel prize committee for giving the peace prize to jailed Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo.

On May 19, 1989, the director of the general office of the Chinese Communist Party, walked with his boss, CCP General Secretary Zhao Ziyang to meet the youth striking on Tiananmen Square. Zhao told the students: "I have to ask you to think carefully about the future". He assured them that all issues could be dealt with peacefully.

One of the recriminations of the students was that their protest was considered as 'turmoil' by the party rather than a patriotic movement. For the youth on the Square, that mattered greatly: they felt that their motivations were being questioned. The name of the director was Wen Jiabao.

Two weeks later, as the People's Liberation Army's tank rolled into the same Square and cornered the remaining students, another man acted as a negotiator between the students and the troops. It is said that he managed to broker a deal with the army and thanks to him, some students escaped the bloodshed.

The name of this man is Lui Xiaobo.

While the first is today prime minister of the second most powerful nation in the world, the second is serving an 11-year sentence somewhere in China. On Friday, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

If you read their declarations, you may think that the two share a lot in common. Recently Premier Wen Jiabao was in the United States where he was interviewed by Fareed Zakaria for CNN's Global Public Square. Zakaria asked him about an article that Wen had written on the most liberal Chinese leader since the Communist take-over in 1949: "You wrote an article about your old boss, Hu Yaobang. In it, you praise him. Do you think in retrospect that Hu Yaobang was a very good leader of China?" Wen immediately answered: "Yes, I think I have given a fair assessment of the history of this person. He made his own contributions to China's reform and opening up."

Then the journalist asked Wen about freedom in China: "Can you be as strong and creative a nation with so many restrictions on freedom of expression, with the internet being censored?" The suave Premier, known as Grandpa Wen in the Middle Kingdom, replied: "I believe freedom of speech is indispensable, for any country, a country in the course of development and a country that has become strong. Freedom of speech has been incorporated into the Chinese constitution.

"I often say that we should not only let people have the freedom of speech, we more importantly must create conditions to let them criticise the work of the government. It is only when there is the supervision and critical oversight from the people that the government will be in a position to do an even better job, and employees of government departments will be the true public servants of the people."

Well, for this man, freedom is just an empty word. He had recently sent the Nobel Laureate to jail.

What crime had Lui committed? He had drafted and signed the Charter 08 asking for constitutional reforms in China.

On Christmas Eve 2009, apparently to avoid international reactions (journalists are usually busy with family celebrations and not bothered about scoops), after a two-hour trial, the No 1 Intermediate People's Court in Beijing read in just 10 minutes, an 11-page sentence.

Liu was informed of his crime: 'incitement of subversion of state power'; a vague charge, always useful for the Party to book dissidents.

The Chinese government had argued that Liu had exceeded the limits of freedom of expression. He had authored writings 'openly slandering and inciting others to overthrow our country's state power'. The appeals court which upheld the original sentence said: "Furthermore, the crime was committed over a long period of time, and the subjective malice was immense. The published articles were widely linked, reproduced, and viewed, spreading vile influence. He is a major criminal offender and should be given severe punishment according to the law."

Since 1989, Liu has been one of China's most prominent human rights activists.

Liu was born in Changchun in Jilin province in 1955. He got a BA in literature from Jilin University in 1982 and his MA from Beijing Normal University in 1984. He later joined Beijing Normal University, where he received a PhD in 1988. For a few years, he was a visiting scholar at several foreign universities including Columbia University, the University of Oslo and the University of Hawaii.

Already in January 1991, Liu had been charged with 'counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement'. Luckily for him, at that time he was exempted from criminal punishment, but in October 1996, he had to serve three years of re-education through labour sentence for 'disturbing public order' (in other words criticising the Communist Party of China).

In a statement released by Xinhua news agency, the court said it had "strictly followed the legal procedures" and "fully protected Liu's litigation rights".

What is this Charter 08?

Charter 08 was a manifesto initially signed by some 300 Chinese intellectuals, human rights activists, lawyers and officials who proposed the blueprint for improving the political system, promoting political reform and democratisation in the People's Republic of China. The signatories included prominent citizens including Tibetan blogger Woeser and Bao Tong, Zhao Ziyang's secretary.

The Charter was released on December 10, 2008, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was inspired by Charter 77 issued by dissidents in Czechoslovakia under Vaclav Havel.

The demands included: amending the Constitution, separation of powers, legislative democracy, an independent judiciary, public control of public servants, guarantee of human rights, rural-urban equality and freedom of association, assembly, expression and religion. A vast program!

In 1981, the famous Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng wrote to his family "it became very clear that I was the chicken killed as a warning to the monkeys". He was referring to his writing on the Democracy Wall in Beijing in 1979 and his essay on the Fifth Modernisation. Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had spoken of the China's Four Modernisations, Wei had added a fifth -- democracy.

Wei believed that for Deng dissidents did not matter much; the old leader's main worry was the party; he just wanted to make sure that nobody could be bitten by the democracy virus. In the process a few chickens like Wei were sacrificed. Deng created some examples 'to warn the monkeys'.

Thirty years later, the situation has not changed much, despite Wen's sweet words.

It is symptomatic that in June 2006 the state council (the Chinese cabinet) ordered an eight-episode TV research entitled 'Preparing for danger in times of safety -- Historic lessons learned from the demise of Soviet Communism.' The project was given to no less than the Academy of Social Sciences, the prime Government think tank. Later CCP's members were requested to watch the series and carefully study and 'discuss' the conclusions offered by the Chinese President himself. Hu Jintao affirmed: "There are multiple factors contributing to the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a very important one being Khrushchev throwing away Stalin's knife and Gorbachev's open betrayal of Marxism-Leninism."

Without a 'knife', the Soviet Union could not survive.

Today, without jailing persons thinking differently, the party and its apparatchiks cannot survive.

But for how long?

One should congratulate the Nobel Prize Committee for their courage. One can't imagine the 'diplomatic' pressure under which they have worked for the past few weeks. Beijing does not like democracy.

Also read:

Peace Nobel for jailed Chinese rebel Liu Xiaobo

Why the Nobel committee gave the award to Liu (external link)

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Clude Arpi