One of the most courageous and visionary of modern Chinese writers is Liu Xiaobo, 53. He's a strong supporter of democracy and something of a firebrand, as well as an awesome thinker and writer, and so he has been a frequent visitor to Chinese jail cells. After Tiananmen in 1989, he was arrested and imprisoned for a time. Then in 1996 he was imprisoned again for another three years for agitating for democracy.
Nonetheless, he drafted Charter 08, which may be remembered as one of the great documents in China's history. It was a call for freedom and democracy, and Liu Xiaobo was joined by 300 intellectuals willing to sign it. Charter 08 prompted enormous discussion within China — and terrified the regime. So, one year ago today, on Dec. 8, 2008, the authorities arrested Liu.
Now they are preparing criminal charges, and the word from Chinese activists is that these charges include subversion and trying to overthrow the government. Chinese PEN says those documents have already been drafted and shown to people. That would be another sad indication that President Hu Jintao is cracking down when he should be easing up to let steam out of the pressure cooker. Moreover, if Liu Xiaobo is charged with such serious offenses — akin to treason — that would be a slap in the face of President Obama, coming as it would right after the Obama visit and his soft-pedaling of human rights concerns.
While I find it unspeakably sad to think that one of China's great writers and thinkers may face many more years of prison, there is an element here that is truly inspiring — and that is the reaction of other Chinese intellectuals. The government's intention has been to terrify dissidents into passivity, but it seems not to be working. A group of other signers of Charter 08 are busy gathering signatures for a new document saying that if the Communist Party is going to arrest Liu Xiaobo, it might as well arrest them as well. They note that Liu did nothing wrong and show that they will not be intimidated into silence. So far they have 70 co-signers for this new statement, and more are being gathered by the moment.
Those of us in writing in America take freedom for granted. We never have to display the kind of courage that these Chinese intellectuals do, and I take my hat off to them — and to the remarkable Liu Xiaobo as he today marks one year in prison. Keep your chin up, Liu Xiaobo — we stand in awe of you and the way you wield your pen.