Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Trial of Liu Xiaobo: A Citizens’ Manifesto and a Chinese Crackdown

Liu Xiaobo

One year ago, the Chinese literary critic and political commentator Liu Xiaobo was taken away from his home in Beijing by the Chinese police, who held him without charge for six months, then placed him under formal arrest for six more months, on the ominous charge of “inciting subversion of state power.” Now, his case has been sent from the police to the state prosecutor’s office, and from there to a court, where his trial is expected to begin on Wednesday. The Chinese government has done what it can to keep the case out of sight, both at home and abroad. But thanks to the Internet, there are ways to be in touch with Liu’s friends and colleagues. In the past few days I have been talking with several of them.

According to Chinese authorities, the evidence against Liu Xiaobo consists of six articles he wrote on radical political reform that were published over several years—and, most importantly, his work on Charter 08, a citizens’ manifesto that calls for constitutional democracy, human rights, and rule of law. Charter 08 marked the first time in PRC history that any group has issued an open call for an end to one-party rule. It states in its opening paragraph that

the Chinese people, who have endured human rights disasters and uncountable struggles across these same years, now include many who see clearly that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values.

It is this document that—invoking the rights that should accrue to all Chinese citizens according to China’s own constitution—appears to be behind the authorities’ arrest of Liu Xiaobo and increasing threats against his friends. (Liu Xiaobo’s case was sent to trial on December 10, the one-year anniversary of the Charter’s official release.)

On December 15, dozens of police were “guarding” the building in Beijing that is the residence of Zhang Zuhua, a friend of Liu Xiaobo and a primary drafter of Charter 08. Zhang’s wife, Tian Yuan, counted 19 different police cars patrolling the area. (She determined that they were different by noting license-plate numbers.) Every time Zhang leaves home, even to visit his ill father in a hospital, at least two police follow him. Tian Yuan is extremely nervous; she is afraid that Zhang will be the next to be arrested. Liu Xiaobo’s wife Liu Xia is even more distraught. The “crime” of which her husband is accused could lead to a 15-year sentence. Some speculate that he will get about five years, others say seven or eight. Liu Xia fears the worst.

Other signers of Charter 08 inside China have offered strong support. More than 600 (this number grows by the hour) have signed a statement that says “if Mr. Liu Xiaobo can be tried on these grounds, then each one of us belongs in the dock with him, and if he is judged guilty of a ‘crime,’ then the judgment stands as a claim that each of us, too, has committed the crime.”

On Sunday, Liu Xiaobo’s lawyers were told the trial will begin this Wednesday, December 23. But no one in the dissident community is under any illusion that the trial is actually a trial. By scheduling the trial so soon after the case was sent to court there will not be enough time for Liu Xiaobo’s lawyers to read “evidence” and prepare rebuttals. It is 100 percent political, 0 percent legal. The decision has already been made, and the formal announcement of a legal process is only theatrics.

Ding Zilin, leader of the group called “Tiananmen Mothers” (of people who lost children in the 1989 Beijing massacre), has announced a public protest to be held at the door of the court house where Liu Xiaobo will be tried. The police know of this plan and have already begun to visit the homes of Charter 08 signatories to warn them that they may not leave home on the day the trial begins. Liu Di, the Internet dissident nicknamed “Stainless Steel Mouse,” records on her Twitter—a new medium in China that goes so fast that police cannot keep up with it— how police visited her to instruct her to stay home on trial-day, and how she replied “you may arrest me right now, if that would be easier.”

Over the past year China’s rulers have sought to treat Charter 08 as a non-event. They avoid mentioning it, and, if they have to mention it, cast it as the pipedream of a tiny fringe of troublemakers. Yet at the same time they have wheeled out their major tools of repression: the state media are forbidden from mentioning the Charter, Web-filters purge its name from the Internet, and police have been sent in pursuit of every one of the original 303 signers for “chats” aimed at intimidating the signer from further involvement. The assiduousness of this response belies the leaders’ claim that they view Charter 08 as a mere trifle.

It is worth noting, too, that none of the repression has involved any attempt to refute the Charter’s ideas. Police do not sit down with the signers to “chat” about how democracy, human rights, and rule of law are bourgeois class interests or foreign imperialist plots. When the Charter is denounced it is never quoted, apparently because to quote it would run the risk of letting it speak for itself.

On December 17 police visited Wen Kejian, a Charter 08 activist in Zhejiang province who had been a successful businessman before turning to human rights work. The police “counseled” him to go back to money-making. “Look at your shabby car, already seven or eight years old,” they said. “All your friends already have Benzes.” They also told Wen that until now they have been “polite” with him. Now, if he doesn’t shut up immediately about Liu Xiaobo and Charter 08, “we won’t be polite anymore.”

Chinese dissidents know that they need to rely on themselves, not on support from foreigners. But they truly appreciate foreign support when they can get it. The Chinese government has a long record of saving its persecution of dissidents for times when the rest of the world is focusing elsewhere. For the past two weeks the world has been looking at Copenhagen; the US is pre-occupied with a health-care debate; and many people everywhere are preparing for Christmas. Zhang Zuhua notes that in 2006, it was three days before Christmas that the Chinese rights-lawyer Gao Zhisheng was convicted of “subversion” (he was taken away by the police in the middle of the night on February 4, 2009, and his whereabouts are unknown); in 2007 it was five days after Christmas that AIDS-activist Hu Jia was arrested for “subverting state authority.” Now it seems Liu Xiaobo’s turn to bear the brunt of the holiday season.

The Chinese I talked with expressed deep gratitude to the German government for its request to the Chinese government to send an observer to Liu Xiaobo’s trial. They are grateful as well for US State Department’s call for Liu’s immediate release, although they continue to feel disappointment at the Obama administration’s generally supine posture toward the Chinese government on questions of human rights.

The West should not regard issues like Liu Xiaobo’s trial as remote from its own concerns because it is occurring on the other side of the globe. China is rising; there is no doubt about that. But what kind of China will it be? A repressive China ruled by a wealthy, powerful, and self-protecting—but nervous and unstable—elite, or something closer to what the supporters of Charter 08 have in mind? The answer to this question will have repercussions around the world.

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