Liu Xiaobo: small things can matter

Two sidelights on the Nobel Peace Prize given to the imprisoned Chinese rights activist Liu Xiaobo. There has been plenty of commentary, both understandable and doubtless right, that awarding a Nobel to a jailed dissident in China will make not the slightest difference to the attitude taken towards human rights by the Chinese communist party.

Perhaps not. But there are a couple of things to note about Liu Xiaobao’s case which give tiny fragments of hope that this prize will focus people across the world and maybe even in China on what is wrong. The Nobel committee have selected Liu not because he has suffered more than any other dissident but because he zeroed in on why rights don’t actually exist in China while they are theoretically written into the country’s constitution.

What Liu always seized on was the inability of a Chinese citizen to use the law against the government if the government has, or may have, broken the law. Rights written about in a constitution are worthless unless enforceable by law which also covers the authorities. This is succinctly summarised in this “explainer” from Slate. It may be a small and, for now, apparently insignificant point but this will one day be the hinge of political reform in China. One day.

Secondly, the Nobel promotes a name and an idea like almost nothing else and there is one thing that many people outside China, without resources but with the qualifications, can do to help freedom of expression inside China. I would not know this if I had not happened to announce an award to two Chinese journalists, Shi Tao and Li Changqing, a few years ago. Neither man was at liberty to collect their award; both were in jail. (The award was the “Golden Pen of Freedom” given annually by the World Editors Forum and World Association of Newspapers; citations are here and here).

On the second occasion, another Chinese winner of the same award was present. She was Gao Yu and she too had been in jail when awarded the Golden Pen in 1995. Afterwards I asked her what people outside China could do to help freedom of expression in China. She is a brisk person and her reply was incisive: translate materials about human rights and freedom of expression into Chinese and make them available on the web. She made clear that the Chinese authorities’ attempts to control the internet were not the issue: people would find a way to the texts. Language was a much bigger barrier. So if you happen to know Chinese and want to contribute, that’s the way to add peacefully to the pressure. Small steps. Because they’re the only ones available.

Meanwhile Beijing cuts off Liu Xiaobo’s wife’s mobile and detains her in her home….

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