I had the privilege of meeting the dissident Liu Xiaobo at his home in Beijing and am thrilled he’s been named Nobel Peace Laureate 2010, but I doubt he’ll be released in time to receive his prize in Oslo. He’s serving an eleven-year sentence for his role in Charter 08, which calls for greater human rights and free elections in China. He may not be the only absentee from the ceremony as various countries weigh the pros and cons of honouring a courageous individual and offending China. Some may simply kowtow to Beijing. That’s realpolitik.
Liu is no newcomer to prison. On the night of the 3-4 June massacre in 1989 he was on hunger strike in Tiananmen Square, in support of the pro-democracy demonstrators. That earned him two years behind bars. He served another six months in the mid-1990s and was jailed for similar ‘criminal’ activity from 1996 to 1999.
Fortunately – for him and for me – he was enjoying a spell out of prison during my visit on the thirteenth anniversary of the massacre in June 2002. Tiananmen Square was virtually empty on 4 June as China contested the World Cup and Chinese throughout the country watched China versus Costa Rica on giant outdoor screens in summer’s sweltering heat.
The screen in my hotel room showed a report on another dissident, Xu Wenli, founder of the short-lived China Democracy Party. CNN’s Jaime FlorCruz was interviewing Xu’s wife, He Xintong, who had staged a hunger strike outside her home to campaign for her husband’s release from jail. He had contracted hepatitis-B and needed urgent medical treatment.
Jaime put me in touch with this brave retired teacher and she invited me to her home, a modest place in an old rundown compound where she single-handedly ran her Save Xu Wenli campaign. Despite her lack of English and my lack of Mandarin, we managed to communicate. I remember feeling tears running down my cheeks when she held up the poster of her handsome husband against her face for me to photograph. I felt for her and her loss.
After she sat me down to a delicious sticky black rice dessert, which I spooned slowly into my mouth to enjoy every morsel, she picked up a Chinese-language book, showed me the cover image of Liu Xiaobo and asked, ‘Would like to meet him?’
Click image to enlarge
Liu Xiaobo! One of my heroes. We were quickly out the door and into a taxi, travelling through a jungle of high-rise concrete and steel, before climbing flights of stairs in a new modern apartment block and knocking on a door. In a spacious light-filled unit lined to the ceiling with books, He Xintong introduced me to Liu, happy in shorts and T-shirt, and his spirited young wife, artist Liu Xia. Our arrival had interrupted their afternoon in front of the box watching the World Cup while Liu smoked countless cigarettes.
‘Are you interested in soccer,’ Liu asked me.
‘No,’ I shook my head.
Even though hooked on soccer, Liu welcomed his friend and this strange antipodean into his home, where I revelled in the sight of two so-called subversives enjoying the simple pleasures of life, relaxed in armchairs, sipping tea, laughing and watching the telly.
In Melbourne on Christmas Day 2002 I learned from the radio news that He Xintong had succeeded in her Save Xu Wenli campaign. Her husband was released, and the couple joined their daughter in the United States for a life in exile. Eight years on, Xu is a senior fellow at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, while his fellow dissident, now Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo is incarcerated.
I applaud China’s progress in raising the living standard of so many of its 1.3 billion people. But to rise to the rank of great world leader China needs to tolerate freedom of expression and to allow a great Chinese individual like Liu Xiaobo to speak his mind. Why is the authoritarian regime so afraid? Why are the unelected leaders of the People’s Republic afraid of the peoples’ voice? (November 2010)