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Liu Xiaobo: A Nobel behind bars

Though he is China's most renowned prisoner, Liu Xiaobo steadfastly remains a man with "no enemies".


In a message smuggled from prison in December 2014, Liu Xiaobo said:

"I am O.K. Here in prison, I have continually been able to read and think.... I have become even more convinced I have no personal enemies .... I hope the world could pay more attention to other victims who are not well known, or not known at all!"

China's most well known dissident writer and activist, Liu Xiaobo, has been imprisoned since December 2008, despite winning the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize and persistent calls by global leaders for his release. Served with an 11-year sentence for 'subverting state power', it seems unlikely that he will be freed before it expires in December 2019.

Liu Xiaobo is a renowned literary critic and activist and author of several books that explore and challenge state ideology. After completing his Phd in the late 1980s he took up several visiting scholarships including at Columbia University, the University of Hawaii and the University of Oslo. He returned to Beijing in early 1989. A central figure during the Tiananmen Square protests, he joined hunger strikers and urged students to maintain a non-violent stance even while under attack from the military. For this he was labelled as one of the 'black hands' behind the protests, arrested and served two years in prison. He continued his activism on his release, for which, in 1995 he was placed under a nine-month heavy surveillance order, and spent another three years of 're-education through labour' between 1996 and 1999.

In 2008, Liu Xiaobo was a lead author of Charter 08, a petition calling for political reform and for China to commit to international human rights conventions. Published to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights, it was inspired by the Charter 77 movement in the then Czechoslovakia. Over 350 journalists, academics and activists signed the petition. On 8 December 2008, just before the formal release of Charter 08, Liu Xiaobo was arrested. A year later, on 23 December 2009, he was brought before a court in Beijing accused of 'inciting subversion of state power'. Just three hours later he was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

In December 2010, Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for "for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China". Unable to attend the ceremony in Oslo, his absence was poignantly represented by an empty chair and his acceptance speech was read by the actress Liv Ullmann. Other Nobel Laureates from across disciplines have raised their voices in his support. Notably, in December 2012 when 134 Laureates issued a joint call on Chinese President Xi Jinping for Liu's release. At the same time Archbishop Desmond Tutu launched a petition that attracted over 450,000 signatures globally.

It was while he was at the re-education camp that Liu Xiaobo met his wife, the poet Liu Xia. She has been held under house arrest since October 2010, when her husband's Nobel prize was announced. She has no access to the internet or telephone, and little contact with friends or family, although she has been granted rare visits to her husband in prison.

Liu Xiaobo is a prominent member of PEN International, heading its Independent Chinese PEN Centre from 2003-2007. The organisation leads the campaign for his release, staging readings of and publishing his and Liu Xiao's writings, alongside constant diplomatic and international advocacy.

Arguably, awarding the Nobel Prize could have cemented Chinese resolve not to accede to pressure for Liu's release. During a state visit to the UK in October 2015, President Xi responded to questions on human rights in China: "China attaches great importance to the protection of human rights", however he made clear that the Chinese government sees human rights through its own lens: "We combine the universal value of human rights with China's reality and we have found a part of human rights development suited to China's national conditions." This does not bode well for Liu Xiaobo or for the country's other civil rights defenders.

Last Updated: 22 October 2015


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