Nobel Behind Bars

Liu Xiaobo, Grant Awarded 1992, 1997, 2009

Liu Xiaobo © Independent Chinese PEN Centre
Liu Xiaobo © Independent Chinese PEN Centre

Long before Liu Xiaobo won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for what the committee called “his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights,” he puzzled over the perils of renown. In 1986, Liu was a small-time poet and literary critic, who had grown up in China’s frigid northeast and received a PhD in literature at Beijing Normal University. At a conference that fall, he gave a speech in which he informed his startled peers that broad acclaim might be a problem — a sign that they were saving their readers “the trouble of thinking.” He said, “In my opinion, true liberation for the Chinese will only come when people learn to live for themselves, when they realize that life is what you make of it.”

Liu’s arguments against fame — inevitably, perhaps — established him as a famous new voice in Chinese intellectual circles. In the decades that followed, most of his writings were banned, even as he broadened his focus from literature to politics, philosophy, and religion, and emerged as China’s most unlikely icon: a gruff chain-smoker with a persistent stutter, a richly obscene vocabulary, and an unflagging desire to say what he believes. By 2008, he had also served three jail terms, beginning with a conviction for his role in the demonstrations at Tiananmen Square. That fall, he and collaborators wrote Charter 08, a declaration calling for human rights and political reform. “The political reality, which is plain for anyone to see, is that China has many laws but no rule of law,” they wrote. They planned to release it on December 10, 2008 — the 60th anniversary of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights — but two days prior, Liu was arrested at home, and later tried for “incitement to subvert state power.” In court, he said, “I hope that I will be the last victim in China’s long record of treating words as crimes.”

China has the largest cohort of Hellman-Hammett grantees (87), and not only because of its huge population. The current crackdown has swept up writers, activists, and even lawyers who had long worked within the system.

On Christmas Day 2009, the court sentenced Liu to 11 years in prison. The state press denounced Charter 08 as the seed of “violent revolution,” an attempt to “put an end to the progress of Chinese society and the happiness of the people.” When Liu was awarded the Nobel, in October 2010, the government was outraged, and it barred his wife, the artist Liu Xia, or anyone else, from going to Oslo to receive the award. It was the first time that a family member had been prevented from doing so since 1935, when Hitler barred relatives from going on behalf of Carl von Ossietzky, a German writer and pacifist, who was in a guarded hospital bed after having been in a concentration camp. Liu’s certificate was placed on an empty blue chair onstage.

In the years after the award, the government took steps to expunge Liu and his wife from the records of Chinese life. She was not accused of a crime, but, in an unusually harsh form of collective punishment, she was put under house arrest and barred from receiving visitors or using the Web or the telephone. After more than two years, reporters reached her front door (her guards were on lunch break); she wept at the sight of visitors and said, “I think Kafka could not have written anything more absurd and unbelievable than this.”

Vigil for Liu in Hong Kong © 2010 YM YIK/EPA/Corbis
Vigil for Liu in Hong Kong © 2010 YM YIK/EPA/Corbis

More than four years after Liu’s conviction, his wife remained under house arrest. In January 2014, a secretly filmed video emerged of her reading two poems, at her desk, in her apartment. She said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to draw birds on the tree?/I’m too old to see, blind/Perhaps you don’t know how to draw a bird at all?” In February 2014, Desmond Tutu and other Nobel Peace Prize winners wrote an open letter to the United Nations and the European Union calling for Liu Xiaobo’s release, but he remained in a prison in Jinzhou, in Liaoning Province.

In December 2014, the exile writer Liao Yiwu released a statement that he said been smuggled to him from Liu. “I am O.K. Here in prison, I have continually been able to read and think. In my studies, I have become even more convinced I have no personal enemies. The nimbus around me is shiny enough by now. I hope the world could pay more attention to other victims who are not well known, or not known at all!”

Evan Osnos is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, winner of the 2014 National Book Award for non-fiction.

Human Rights Watch has to be very, very careful to protect sources, especially in repressive countries where risks are high. New surveillance technologies are making it harder to have private conversations by phone, email, or social media. Refugees and exiles can sometimes be important sources of information. Help Defend Human Rights & Save Lives. Donate at
Email to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterGoogle+