DECEMBER 12, 2011
One year ago, I sat in the great city hall of Oslo with hundreds of writers and other supporters of Liu Xiaobo from around the world. In spite of his absence, it was not a ceremony of sadness, or even of anger. There was a kind of fervour tied to the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, so clearly a celebration of freedom of expression and of the courage it often requires. Never has the PEN symbol of the empty chair seemed more dramatic, the chair itself somehow larger in its terrible emptiness, with the Nobel Committee seated on either side.
Its leader, Thorbjørn Jagland, had to speak for both the Committee and the jailed winner. He managed one of those rare orations, filled equally with emotion and intellect, which showed why the Chinese authorities had everything to gain by supporting freedom of expression.
Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, had been put under house arrest, his friends blocked from travelling out of fear that they might come to Oslo. And yet, the most dramatic detail lay elsewhere, in the failure of Beijing to discredit the ceremony. They had attacked Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Norwegian government. And they had launched a major international boycott campaign, using their economic and political clout to convince countries not to attend. In the end, beyond those ten or so annually absent, only a single digit handful of countries caved in to these pressures.
It was a remarkable diplomatic defeat that Beijing is still digesting, uncertain what to do, swaying back and forth between cracking down and loosening up.
In the meantime, all the new means of communication have carried Liu Xiaobo’s message deep into Chinese society. Of course, there are repeated attempts to block these communications, many of which are successful. But each attempt to limit his reputation and message simply amplifies it. The constant technical attempts to block communications act as a signal of their importance. It is as if the Chinese authorities have inadvertently put a loudspeaker to Liu Xiaobo’s message. This message of openness and inclusion would have spread in any case. But the authorities have accelerated and broadened its reach.
So here we are, one year later. Liu Xiaobo’s reputation is intact. His intellectual and ethical weight in China is greater than ever.
As for the Chinese government, the more interesting elements within it are desperately trying to clamp down on corruption. They are desperate to get a handle on widespread strikes and riots, brought on in good part by this corruption and by ineffectual or indifferent officials. They know that the new generation of workers needs protection; they and their families and other citizens need accessible healthcare and education. They need the support of a fair society.
That reform side of the government knows it could benefit from the public rigour which more often than not is a product of open and stable public debate. The source of that debate is freedom of expression, properly respected. And the roots of that freedom of expression are writers, writers protected by the national and international laws and conventions which China has committed itself to, and needs to begin taking seriously.
The simplest way by which to send the message that those commitments are being taken seriously is to release Liu Xiaobo.