Today the Nobel Committee awards its Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo. He is not there to collect it. Instead, an empty chair sits on the stage where he should be.
There is no representative to collect his award. For the first time since Adolf Hitler imprisoned Carl von Ossietzky, who won the prize in 1935, there is no one who can receive the award on the winner’s behalf.
Liu Xiaobo is imprisoned. He has been sentenced to 11 years in Jinzhou Prison, in Liaoning Province, for the crime of ‘spreading a message to subvert the country and authority’. The message in question is a charter calling for freedom of expression, basic human rights, and free elections.
This marks the fourth time he has been imprisoned. His non-violent protests against the totalitarian nature of the regime in which he lives have led to him losing (so far) 7 years of his life to imprisonment. He was first jailed after the Tiananmen Square protests, where, in actions that led to him being known as one of the ‘four junzis’ (‘exemplary men’) of the events, he persuaded hundreds of students to leave at the end of the protest, thus saving their lives.
On December 23rd, 2009, Xiaobo addressed the court in which he was most recently being tried. Although I reproduce below merely an abridged version of his comments, they nevertheless serve to indicate what an extraordinary man, possessed of extraordinary moral courage, Xiaobo is.
“June 1989 was the major turning point in my 50 years on life’s road. Before that, I was a member of the first group of students to take the newly restored college entrance examinations following the Cultural Revolution; my career was a smooth ride, from undergraduate to grad student and through to PhD. After graduation I stayed on as a lecturer at Beijing Normal University.
“On the podium, I was a popular teacher, well received by students. I was also a public intellectual: in the 1980s I published articles and books that created an impact. I was frequently invited to speak in different places, and invited to go abroad to Europe and the US as a visiting scholar. What I required of myself was to live with honesty, responsibility and dignity both as a person and in my writing.
“Subsequently, because I had returned from the US to take part in the 1989 movement, I was imprisoned for “counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement to crime”, losing the platform I loved; I was never again allowed to publish or speak in public in China. Simply for expressing divergent political views and taking part in a peaceful and democratic movement, a teacher lost his podium, a writer lost the right to publish, and a public intellectual lost the chance to speak publicly. This was a sad thing, both for myself as an individual, and, after three decades of reform and opening, for China.
“Thinking about it, my most dramatic experiences after 4 June 1989 have all been linked with the courts; the two opportunities I had to speak in public have been provided by trials held in the people’s intermediate court in Beijing, one in January 1991 and one now. Although the charges on each occasion were different, they were in essence the same, both crimes of expression.
“Twenty years on, the innocent souls of 4 June are yet to rest in peace, and I, who had been drawn into the path of dissidence by the passions of 4 June, after leaving the Qincheng prison in 1991 lost the right to speak openly in my own country, and could only do so through overseas media, and hence was monitored for many years; placed under surveillance (May 1995 – January 1996); educated through labour (October 1996 – October 1999), and now once again am thrust into the dock by enemies in the regime.
“But I still want to tell the regime that deprives me of my freedom, I stand by the belief I expressed 20 years ago in my hunger strike declaration – I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentence me, are my enemies. While I’m unable to accept your surveillance, arrest, prosecution or sentencing, I respect your professions and personalities. This includes the prosecution at present: I was aware of your respect and sincerity in your interrogation of me on 3 December.
“For hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation’s spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy. I hope therefore to be able to transcend my personal vicissitudes in understanding the development of the state and changes in society, to counter the hostility of the regime with the best of intentions, and defuse hate with love.
“I firmly believe that China’s political progress will never stop, and I’m full of optimistic expectations of freedom coming to China in the future, because no force can block the human desire for freedom. China will eventually become a country of the rule of law in which human rights are supreme. I’m also looking forward to such progress being reflected in the trial of this case, and look forward to the full court’s just verdict – one that can stand the test of history.
“Ask me what has been my most fortunate experience of the past two decades, and I’d say it was gaining the selfless love of my wife, Liu Xia. She cannot be present in the courtroom today, but I still want to tell you, my sweetheart, that I’m confident that your love for me will be as always. Over the years, in my non-free life, our love has contained bitterness imposed by the external environment, but is boundless in afterthought. I am sentenced to a visible prison while you are waiting in an invisible one.
“Your love is sunlight that transcends prison walls and bars, stroking every inch of my skin, warming my every cell, letting me maintain my inner calm, magnanimous and bright, so that every minute in prison is full of meaning. But my love for you is full of guilt and regret, sometimes heavy enough to hobble my steps. I am a hard stone in the wilderness, putting up with the pummeling of raging storms, and too cold for anyone to dare touch. But my love is hard, sharp, and can penetrate any obstacles. Even if I am crushed into powder, I will embrace you with the ashes.
“Given your love, my sweetheart, I would face my forthcoming trial calmly, with no regrets about my choice and looking forward to tomorrow optimistically. I look forward to my country being a land of free expression, where all citizens’ speeches are treated the same; where different values, ideas, beliefs, political views … both compete with each other and coexist peacefully; where, majority and minority opinions will be given equal guarantees, in particular, political views different from those in power will be fully respected and protected; where all political views will be spread in the sunlight for the people to choose; [where] all citizens will be able to express their political views without fear, and will never be politically persecuted for voicing dissent.
“I hope to be the last victim of China’s endless literary inquisition, and that after this no one else will ever be jailed for their speech.
“Freedom of expression is the basis of human rights, the source of humanity and the mother of truth. To block freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, to strangle humanity and to suppress the truth.
“I do not feel guilty for following my constitutional right to freedom of expression, for fulfilling my social responsibility as a Chinese citizen. Even if accused of it, I would have no complaints.”
He is a man worthy of the prize with which he has been honoured.