Following is an excerpt from the first chapter of The Diplomat contributor Bill Dodson's book, China Inside Out: Irreversible Trends Re-shaping China and its Relationship with the World, in which he discusses his meeting with Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and the implications of Charter 08.
Chinese dissidents were hardly idle as the government censors thickened China's walls against online criticism and soapbox proclamations. Liu Xiaobo's Charter 08, an online Declaration of Independence the former Beijing Normal University professor posted at the end of 2008, was the boldest affront to central authority mandate in years.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
I first met Lu Xiaobo during the 2007 Chinese Spring Festival in Beijing. Xiaobo is a well-known dissident who has been struggling against the Chinese government since the Tiananmen Square uprising nearly 20 years ago. He has been in and out of prison as a political prisoner for years. An old friend of his, a former Beijing lawyer, had invited me to dinner along with several of her friends from the Tiananmen days. Liu and his wife had come as well. It had been months since they were without the public security shadows who typically tailed them. I was struck by how small both he and his wife were, and how much alike they both appeared. They both wore dark, baggy clothes and sported shaved heads. They seemed ready at any moment for Liu to return to prison; his wife was simply ready for the marathon sessions involving government entreaties and international communications to get her husband released.
Most of the discussion that evening at the restaurant revolved around the mistakes students and agitators made during the standoff at Tiananmen Square, which finally led to the army routing the protesters and killing hundreds—perhaps even thousands—of people.
The Chinese friend with whom I’d come to the dinner encouraged me to continue the discussion at Liu’s home. The prospect of a foreigner interested in what they had to say seemed to delight the dissident couple. They were in high spirits from a combination of the animated dinner conversation and the sense of freedom from house arrest, however short-lived. They lived in a modest apartment block within walking distance from the restaurant. As we walked down the driveway into the residential compound, Liu pointed at an empty sentry’s box and commented on how even the public security guard assigned to keep an eye on their home had retired for the holiday.
Two things struck me when I entered their home for what would be the first and last time: how the walls of books made such a beautiful montage of color that brightened their sanctuary; and the prominent position of a personal computer in their living room. Liu explained that he spent most of his time in front of the computer, writing e-mails and political tracts for international consumption. The four of us spent the rest of the evening drinking wine and debating the merits of Western-style democracy.
A year and a half later, in December 2008, Liu would author the most politically explosive tract ever to be posted on the Internet. Called Charter 08, the article was essentially a declaration of independence from the authoritarian rule of the Communist Party. The opening of the Charter states: ‘A group of 303 Chinese writers, intellectuals, lawyers, journalists, retired Party officials, workers, peasants, and businessmen have issued an open letter—'Charter 08'—calling for legal reforms, democracy, and protection of human rights in China.’ Even more infuriating to Chinese authorities was that scores of scholars and intellectuals from around the world digitally signed the declaration. The government security apparatus moved quickly, blocking domestic access to the site on which the pronouncement had originated, and arresting Liu. In December 2009, judges sentenced Liu to 11 years in prison for his attempts to destabilize the society, the toughest sentence ever passed down to a dissident, including those arrested just after the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989.
Government censors took additional steps to sweep the Internet clean of any content they felt inappropriate for consumption by the Chinese masses under the guise of sanitizing the web of pornography. The authorities started their cyber-purge by closing down the controversial online forum bullog.com, a prominent website published and read by progressive Chinese thinkers who had written extensive commentaries and analyses of the implications of Charter 08. The charter had amped the momentum of the central government's mission to sanitize the Internet of opposition to its hegemony. The China Digital Times, a popular blog based at the University of California that’s critical of Chinese government policy, called the police action ‘the most vicious crackdown in years.’[i]
Censors electronically blocked hundreds of blogs and arrested some writers to make an example of them. By mid-February 2009, the government had closed nearly 2000 websites and 250 blogs that supported online-discussion forums, instant-messaging groups and text-messaging boards. The government justified its actions as an antipornography drive; however, it was clear that any platforms that discussed politically sensitive issues were prime targets for elimination. An entrepreneur named Wang Zhaojunsued his blog-host service, Sina.com, in late winter of that year for closing his blog on the eve of Chinese New Year. Once himself a local government official, Wang demanded the portal explain its actions given his right to free speech as written in the Chinese constitution. His case was not helped in the least as he had written a diatribe against the country's one-party system, along with references to the Falun Gong sect, the Tiananmen Square massacre, and Charter 08—all red capes to the government bulls-in-waiting, who by late 2010 still hadn’t published a judgment in the case.[ii]
[i]Michael Wines, "A Dirty Pun Tweaks China's Online Censors," New York Times, March 11, 2009.
[ii]Kathrin Hille,"Beijing Court to Rule on Political Blog Case," Financial Times, February 2, 2009.