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Contender for Nobel prize is in Chinese prison

October 4, 2010

By CARA ANNA
Associated Press (AP)
October 2, 2010

BEIJING -- When the police came for Liu Xiaobo on
a December night nearly two years ago, they
didn't tell the dissident author why he was being
taken away again. The line in the detention order
for his "suspected crime" was left blank.

But Liu and the dozen officers who crowded into
his dark Beijing apartment knew the reason. He
was hours from releasing Charter 08, the China
democracy movement's most comprehensive call yet
for peaceful reform. The document would be viewed
by the ruling Communist Party as a direct
challenge to its 60-year monopoly on political power.

Liu, who over the past two decades had endured
stints in prison and re-education camp, looked at
the blank detention notice and lost his temper.

"At that moment, I knew the day I was expecting
had finally come," his wife, Liu Xia, said
recently as she recounted the night of Dec. 8,
2008. Thinking of the Beijing winter, she said
she brought him a down coat and cigarettes. The
police took the cigarettes away.

Liu was sentenced last Christmas Day to 11 years
in prison for subversion. The 54-year old
literary critic is now a favorite to win the
Nobel Peace Prize — in what would be a major
embarrassment to the Chinese government.

He is the best shot the country's dissident
movement has had in winning the prestigious award
since it began pushing for democratic change
after China's authoritarian leaders launched
economic, but not political, reforms three decades ago.

Last year the prize was won by President Barack
Obama. Other contenders for this year's prize
include Zimbabwe Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.

In an indication of Beijing's unease, China's
deputy foreign minister has warned the Nobel
Institute not to give the prize to a Chinese
dissident, the director of the Norway-based
institute said this week. In another sign of
official disapproval, an editorial on Thursday in
the state-run Global Times newspaper called Liu a radical and separatist.

In China, police continue to threaten and
question some of the more than 300 people who
were the first to sign Charter 08, which was
co-authored by Liu. Despite the risk, thousands
more have signed it since its release.

Charter 08 is an echo of Charter 77, the famous
call for human rights in then-Czechoslovakia that
led to the 1989 Velvet Revolution that swept away
the communist regime. The charter for China calls
for more freedoms and an end to the Communist
Party's political dominance. "The democratization
of Chinese politics can be put off no longer," it says.

Former peace prize winners Archbishop Desmond
Tutu, the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama
and Charter 77 co-drafter Vaclav Havel have
joined those calling for Liu to get the award.
Scholars inside and outside China have mounted
letter-writing campaigns on his behalf.

"If I were the Chinese Communist Party, I would
free him now. Release him. Now. So you don't have
the humiliation and it's good for everyone," said
Jean-Philippe Beja, a China scholar at the
Paris-based Center for International Studies and
Research and a longtime friend of Liu.

The blunt, sometimes earthy Liu is not always
liked, even by fellow activists. "He hasn't yet
become the kind of inspiring person Mandela is,"
AIDS activist Wan Yanhai said in a Twitter post
this week, referring to the former South African leader, also a Nobel laureate.

But Liu is rare among government critics in China
for being well-known not just among the dissident
movement but among the wider public too.

"Across the spectrum, Chinese intellectuals and
students have high respect for Liu Xiaobo," said
Andrew Nathan, a professor at Columbia University
in New York who once sponsored Liu as a visiting
scholar. "The award of the prize ... would be
viewed by most as an act friendly to China."

It was not the same when the Tibet-born Dalai
Lama was awarded the peace prize in 1989. Not
just the Chinese government but some of the
public too were angry over the win by the exiled
Buddhist leader — regarded as a traitor by
officialdom for his views on Tibet's status.

Liu first drew attention in 1986, when he
criticized Chinese writers' "childish" obsession
with the Nobel Prize. Two years later, he became
a visiting scholar in Oslo, where the peace prize is awarded.

There, in his first time outside China, his writings became more political.

"Perhaps my personality means that I'll crash
into brick walls wherever I go," Liu wrote from
Oslo to Geremie Barme, a China scholar at
Australian National University. "I can accept it
all, even if in the end I crack my skull open."

Liu cut short a visiting scholar stint at
Columbia University months later to join the
Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989. He
and three other older activists famously
persuaded students to peacefully leave the square
hours before the deadly June 4 crackdown.

"I remember clearly the difficulty and pain Liu
Xiaobo and his comrades-in-arms -- raised as they
had been with the most radical type of an
education — experienced in reaching this
decision, one which only later was understood to
have saved the lives of several hundred
students," Xu Youyu, a professor with the Chinese
Academy of Social Sciences, recently wrote in a
public letter supporting Liu for the peace prize.

Liu went to prison after the crackdown and was
released in early 1991 because he had repented
and "performed major meritorious services," state
media said at the time, without elaborating.

The bloody Tiananmen experience made Liu less
radical, said Zhou Duo, a friend on the square.

"He used to be impetuous, but he changed a lot
after June 4," Zhou said. "He became more
rational and mild. He criticized the Communist
Party, but he preferred having good exchanges
between government and the opposition about politics and democracy."

Still, five years later Liu was sent to a
re-education camp for three years for co-writing
an open letter that demanded the impeachment of then-President Jiang Zemin.

Liu emerged from that sentence in 1999 to find
the Internet age. He resisted the new medium of
communication at first, but eventually called the
Internet "God's present to China."

Now Liu only writes a diary and letters to his
wife, which she keeps private. His family can
visit him in prison, but they can't talk about
his case or world events, and officials stand by taking notes.

His wife said the couple had never imagined Liu winning the peace prize.

"I can always predict when bad things are about
to happen," she said, "but I can never totally
believe that good things can become a reality."

Associated Press Writer Isolda Morillo contributed to this report.
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