Words on Trial in Beijing

By JONATHAN MIRSKY
Published: December 18, 2009

In the late spring of 1989, a few weeks before the killings of June 4, a slight, almost nerdish figure appeared in Tiananmen Square and began exhorting the students to concentrate on democracy rather than the deposition of China’s top leaders and an end to corruption.

I recall that young man scurrying from group to group of demonstrators sitting on the flagstones. As he awkwardly gesticulated, they hung on every word with the intense attention that Chinese students give teachers of great authority.

He was Liu Xiaobo, then 33, a university teacher of literature who had hurried back from Columbia University, where he was a visiting scholar, to join the Tiananmen demonstrations.

Mr. Liu now faces 15 years in prison. Or rather 15 more years: He was imprisoned for two years after June 4, another three during the 1990s, and he has been in detention since his arrest last June.

The present charge is “agitation activities, such as spreading of rumors and defaming of the government, aimed at subversion of the state and overthrowing the socialism system.” According to the PEN American Center, the trial could begin as early as Monday.

What is Mr. Liu’s crime? He was a principal figure behind Charter 08, a document published last December and initially signed by 303 brave Chinese inside China and abroad.

It declared: “We should make freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and academic freedom universal, thereby guaranteeing that citizens can be informed and can exercise their right of political supervision.

“These freedoms should be upheld by a Press Law that abolishes political restrictions on the press.

“The provision in the current Criminal Law that refers to ‘the crime of incitement to subvert state power’ must be abolished. We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.”

To anyone living in a free society the words seem merely Jeffersonian: “For China the path that leads out of our current predicament is to divest ourselves of the authoritarian notion of reliance on an ‘enlightened overlord’ or an ‘honest official’ and to turn instead toward a system of liberties, democracy and the rule of law, and toward fostering the consciousness of modern citizens who see rights as fundamental and participation as a duty.”

For Beijing the charter was like an explosive charge capable of blowing up the leadership compound within the walls of the Forbidden City. Ever since Mao began persecuting writers in the early 1950s, words have been regarded as especially dangerous in China.

Beijing does not engage in arguments. It simply bullies to discourage others. Zhang Zhixin, a young Chinese woman, was executed in 1975 for “opposing the Great Helmsman Chairman Mao, opposing Mao Zedong thought, opposing the revolutionary proletarian line and piling offense upon offense.” To ensure that Ms. Zhang could not cry out at her execution, her vocal cords were cut.

Mr. Liu’s indictment came on International Human Rights Day. But there’s nothing unique here. Recently, for example, a Chinese official explained why the government bans Wikipedia: “The strength of a small number of evil-doers will make Wikipedia into a platform spreading bad information and threatening state security and social stability.”

On a nationwide scale, there is the constant official inspection of the Chinese Internet for taboo words like Tiananmen, Taiwan, Dalai Lama — and democracy. Use of such words can bring a knock on the door and arrest.

Sadly, China now gets a free American pass on the abridgment of its fundamental human rights. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has suggested that human rights must now take a back seat behind other more important considerations, and President Obama canceled a visit to the White House by the Dalai Lama after Beijing warned that it would imperil the president’s trip to China.

Liu Xiaobo remains clear-eyed. Before his latest arrest he observed, “In the game of ban and response to ban, the people’s space for expression increases millimeter by millimeter. The more the people advance, the more the authorities retreat.

“The time is not far when the frontier of censorship will be breached and the people will openly demand freedom of expression."

Jonathan Mirsky is a journalist specializing in Chinese affairs.