Ai Mi: Liu Xiaobo Shocks Chinese Society by Winning the Nobel Peace Prize

Best-selling novelist Ai Mi (艾米) shared her thoughts on Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize in an Asia Weekly article. Her comments are interspersed with comments from other acclaimed authors, Zhou Duo (周舵) and Ye Fu (野夫), who weigh in on what the prize means for civil society and freedom of speech. Translated by Don Weinland and CDT Staff:

Liu Xiaobo Shocks Chinese Society by Winning the Nobel Peace Prize

By Ai Mi

Liu Xiaobo’s receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, the Tiananmen Incident and Charter 08 can be traced to the same origin. From this, Chinese society has acquired a representative for dialogue with the institution. Upon hearing the news that Liu Xiaobo received the award, many wept silently. Even more gathered in celebration at restaurants. The sound of fire crackers echoed from Beijing and Shandong universities. At the Central Academy of Fine Arts, student Wei Qiang hung a banner telling people the Nobel laureate was still in prison.

4:50, 4:55, 4:59 … The journalist beside me feverishly refreshed Twitter on a cell phone. Constant refreshing rendered the screen unclear.

5:00! The news simultaneously popped up on the screen: “Liu Xiaobo receives the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

In the Beijing taxi, the radio program was still discussing the Nobel Peace Prize when it suddenly became a pop song. It was like a drama. Tiananmen was just outside the window of the cab.

Twenty-one years ago, troops aimed machine guns at the unarmed students in the square. Even today’s premier (Wen Jiabao) couldn’t prevent the tragedy. Young, hot blood left a harsh and shameful stroke on the history of the republic. Until today, this stroke has remained unfinished.

Twenty-one years later, the death witnessed on the square, the systematic violence he met with constantly, he, however persisted as the cry for the rights of the common person, putting forth the Charter 08 and insisting the people of China “have no enemy.” And with the same honor as Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu, he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

5:00 on Oct. 8, 2010 is a moment worth writing into the annals of history. This page of history is so unique, it could be a novel, or even a prophesy.

As they saw the name on the computer screen, or heard it on the phone, many wept silently. Among them were scholars, corporate-types, entrepreneurs, as well as officials. Just as Liu Xiaobo had, many of them experienced the disillusionment of their youth on that square, from then on remaining silent among the crowd.

Many raised a glass and drank bitterly. They gave an Internet-age name to these “celebrations” or “criticisms” – activities for the first Chinese national to receive the Nobel Peace Prize – calling it “eating until drunk.” Among them, many were youth born after 1980. Twitter or the blogosphere is the source of their information. Most know Liu Xiaobo from the documentary “Tiananmen” they saw online, or Charter 08. They don’t know anything about him but believe he is a good person. They identify with his effort for freedom, democracy and constitutional power.

Firecrackers sounded from unknown origins at Beijing University and Shandong University. At the graduate building of Beijing Normal University, a small scale celebration was held for former classmate Liu Xiaobo’s award. At the Central Academy of Fine Arts, student Wei Qiang hung a banner telling people the Nobel lauriat was still in prison. Beijing Film Academy professor Cui Weiping received numerous text messages from students and young friends, expressing a “mixed feeling of grief and joy.”

There were also many who became abnormally busy upon hearing the news.

At No. 9 South Yuyuantan Road, a cordon of dozens of police and sentries cut off a seething crowd of more than 100 foreign journalists. Audio recorders, cameras and lenses extended toward the police line. Norwegian, American, British, French, Japanese, Hong Kong and Taiwanese … Journalists from every major news media outlet were pointing their microphones at the inapproachable building 17.

This is Liu Xiaobo’s home. His wife, Liu Xia could not move an inch without three national security officials accompanying her.

Passersby could not understand what was happening here, and would not stop inquiring. Finally one would tell another who Liu Xiaobo is, what he did and what happened tonight. At the scene, a youth told the reporter he told five people who Liu Xiaobo is, and also taught them how to evade online censorship to see the news.

Police in Beijing’s eastern district hastily extinguished an “Eat until Drunk” activity near Tandong Gate. The young scholar Xu Zhiyong, online friends Wu Gan and Wang Lihong and others wore yellow ribbons and raised a placard saying “Congratulations Liu Xiaobo on winning the Nobel Prize” in a small park near Tandong Gate. They even carried a personal stereo and played the five-minute Internationale, explaining to passersby who Liu Xiaobo is. This kind of behavior was called “disturbing the public order” by authorities. No less than 20 police stormed a small restaurant and, taking with them the crowd of 10 who had created the disturbance. Many spent a day and a night in the police station before being released. Wu Gan, Zhao Changqing and Wang Lihong all received administrative detention. One of the online friends just released told Asia Weekly he didn’t think he had broken any law, yet the police had appeared very impatient.

“They had been so lazy they didn’t check to see if the address I had written was real, so lazy they didn’t confirm my real identity. An officer even asked, “Who is Liu Xiaobo? What university is he at?”

At Shanghai’s People’s Square, another “Norwegian dinner” was extinguished by the Huangpu Police Department. Media person Shi Feike, scholar Wang Xiaoyu and another journalist were taken away while waiting to eat. They were released six hours later.

Portal posts censored late at night portal

The lights in an office building in Zhongguancun were on until 3 a.m. At 3:00 p.m. Big portal sites like Sina, Sohu and NetEase received instruction from the Network Management Office to remove all Nobel Prize news from homepages by 3:10. Several hours after the peace prize ceremony, the blog departments of big portal sites were notified that all news concerning Liu Xiaobo winning the peace prize must be strictly deleted.

Insiders described to Asia Weekly dozens of people who burned the midnight oil for the occasion:

“Our site’s entire auditing department was put into action. Starting in the evening at least 50 people auditing and deleting, post by post. Some worked until 3 or 4 in the morning before going home. First thing in the morning, at 7 or 8, they came back and continued to delete.”

He estimated, from the time the news was released until the evening peak hours, more than 30 percent of blogs were transferring information on the Nobel Peace Prize, with an estimated hundreds of thousands of posts on the topic at the big portal sites.

Overwhelmed censors stopped blog site search engines and let their computers directly block “Liu Xiaobo”, “6.4” and other first-degree sensitive words. They set “Nobel” as a second-degree sensitive word. When a second-degree word appears, behind the scenes auditors are notified at the site. They read each post and individually delete ones that don’t meet their criteria. Regulators also request big blog sites to provide a “black list” of the sources of the information. An insider who wished to remain anonymous said “Here we see the site officials’ conscience. Getting by (without providing the names) is quite easy.”

With a population 1.3 billion, how many Chinese know Liu Xiaobo? As one ordinary white-collared worker said: “I found out about this yesterday.” Just as my heart was turning, I was struck by the fragmented indifference of those around me. It pinned me down.

But the peace prize still made this young quiet intellectual feel that it was worth it.

The story is kept secret but the undercurrent is swelling everywhere.

At this moment, I’m afraid the quietest place is the prison in Jinzhou, Liaoning, 500 kilometers from Beijing.

On Dec. 25, 2009, the Beijing First Intermediate People’s Court sentenced Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison and a two-year deprivation of political rights on an inciting state subversion charge. This Nobel Peace Prize receiving prisoner, who is incarcerated in the Jinzhou prison, will not be released until June 21, 2020.

Both the celebration and indifference on the evening of Oct. 8 has no relation with Liu Xiaobo. He had been in the Jinzhou Prison 10 months. He had seen his wife a total of five times – an hour each time. He still didn’t know he won the prize.

Under full monitoring by State Security, Liu Xia saw Liu Xiaobo for the sixth time on Oct. 10.

Liu Xiaobo’s wife is put under house arrest

At 9 that night, Liu Xia told online friends via Twitter that she had been put on house arrest. But she had already seen Xiaobo. He had learned from prison guards on the evening of Oct. 9 of his award. Liu Xia’s good friend Wang Jinbo confirmed on Twitter that the news described above had been sent by Liu Xia. He said: “(Liu Xia) was told by police that she could not see the media or friends. Liu Xiaobo told her the prize was for souls lost at Tiananmen Square first. He cried.”

Liu Xiaobo cried. His wife knew they weren’t tears of joy, but tears for the souls of Tiananmen.

Those who understand Liu Xiaobo know the significance of the Tiananmen Square Incident to him. Before 1989, he was the most popular instructor at Beijing Normal University. In a conversation with Li Zehou, he quipped that Liu Xiaobo is the “dark horse” of the literary world.

In May of 1980, Liu Xiaobo prematurely ended his visit to America’s Colombia University and returned to Beijing. He hopped to reason with the students at Tiananmen Square and avoid the possibility of a tragedy. But it was temptation of ideal that surpassed pure reason. To the sound of the Internationale on the square, he decided to support the student activity by fasting. Liu Xiaobo, Zhou Duo, Hou Dejian and Gao Xinzhe, “The Four Princes of Tiananmen” put forth the “June 2 Fast.” And in their “Fasting Declaration” they suggested for the first time “We have no enemies,” “Don’t allow hate and violence poison our wisdom and the Chinese people’s road to democracy.”

Two days later, troops and tanks entered the square. Even though the “four prices” straightened their backs and negotiated with the military at the last minutes, and did the utmost to convince the thousands of students to safely leave the square, young blood was already spattered across the square, never to wiped clean.

This was a turning point in Liu Xiaobo’s life. Zhou Duo recalls, in 1991, not long after Liu Xiaobo had been released from prison, his friends took him out. As their car passed Tiananmen, he didn’t dare face the square, but turned and wailed.

Zhou Duo said “This is Xiaobo’s character. He is not a simple person. Once could even describe his personality as complicated. His heart is stuck on the battle between heaven and earth, in eternal introspection, in repentance, like a saint, never compromising with himself.

I’d rather go to jail than seek survival by leaving the country

Since then, he has identified himself as a “6.4 survivor.” He bears the cross of departed spirits, slowly moving forward by the bravery of martyrs; his road has been particularly lonely. From 1989 to 1991, he was sentenced for “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement” and was imprisoned. From 1996 to 1999, he was sentenced to three years of reeducation through labor for “disturbing social order.” Aside from these, he was frequently under residential surveillance and house arrest. He has never had full freedom after 1989, through the eleven years up to this specific prison sentence. His name has become a sensitive phrase, and friends have suggested to him that he become like Lu Xun by taking on several pen names to continue to write articles in China. He has refused, stating that he will never change his name or surname. Liu Xiaobo only hopes that there will be a day in China when [people] will be able to speak forth loudly and clearly. He refuses to leave China, and refuses to hide.

After receiving the Nobel Peace Prize on October 8th, Liu Xia represented Liu Xiaobo by thanking friends who have shown concern for him. She spoke cautiously that this prize was not only an honor, but also a greater responsibility. “Liu Xiaobo still has a long road ahead. Everyone, strive hard together in order to realize the ardent hopes of Chinese democracy and freedom!”

Liu wrote: “Gulag, not a noun. Auschwitz, not a noun.”

Then he rewrote his life’s “6.4” — for both the individual and the country, it was even less a noun.

The pen never finished writing 21 years ago. Eventually it will. But when?

The struggle for peace seen as a compromise

According to Zhou Duo, the Peace Prize, the Tian’anmen Square incident, and Charter 08 are all connected by the same artery. He says: “Before 6.4, very few of these kinds of voices spoke: Opposing the Chinese Communist Party in past decades was always imbued with class struggle, was a clearly black and white issue, and needed a peaceful transformation. We raised this issue on the Square, and many people said that our hunger strike declaration was of milestone significance. But till today, Liu Xiaobo has said “I have no enemies,” yet there are people who still say you are making compromises with the enemies.

On December 23rd, 2009, Liu Xiaobo presented his “I have no enemies: My final statement” in court during his final trial. He said: “I stand by the belief I expressed twenty years ago in my ‘June Second hunger strike declaration’ — I have no enemies, and no hatred … For hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation’s spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy.”

“Such new ideas regarding governance deeply accord with the aims of the Nobel Peace Prize.” Zhou Duo believes that the Peace Prize’s appeal can win over most people’s hearts, “The CCP no longer needs to use ‘anti-Chinese power’ as a reason to deceive people. The Peace Prize is extremely moderate, and gives the CCP a lot of wiggle room and ample opportunity for self-improvement.”

“This may of course have some impact on China’s political reform,” said Zhou Duo. “This system is already overworked, leaders’ self-selection has increased in frequency. Before, this would have been an inconceivable situation. The Nobel Prize will surely shake up deadlocked factions. But which faction will prevail is hard to say.”

Lack of consensus among the people

He is worried by the lack of consensus among China’s people, and even more by the lack of a path to realizing such a consensus. “A peaceful transformation requires positive interaction between the ruling party and the opposition. However, I’m not too optimistic on this point.”

Just like the “89 generation,” former police officers during the Tian’anmen square incident were jailed for supporting students. After they were released from prison, they engaged in business, wrote books, and produced much below the radar research. Writer Ye Fu is quite optimistic about this.

Ye Fu and Liu Xiaobo have known each other for over 10 years. When the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman said Liu Xiaobo blasphemed the Peace Prize, he found it hilarious: “A totalitarian society’s rulers and its people are at odds with each other. Our expenditures on maintaining internal order are reaching the expenditure costs for our outside military. Is this not ‘a quasi-state of war’ All Xiaobo did was do his best to end this state of affairs, requesting a peaceful transformation — not like how it was on June 4th, but a real harmony.”

Yefu says: “As for this peace prize, if we look at it from the perspective of hindsight, I think [it] will take on a very profound meaning.” He agrees with Zhou Duo’s statement that “[civil society] lacks consensus”: “Our civil society has not truly developed. It is still under the iron fist of the controlling apparatus. Civil society’s slight growth might get struck hard. For example, right now, [if one wants to have] reform, the central authorities must talk with its people, and talk with whom? Our people do not have a [civil] leader. India had Gandhi, Burma has Aung San Suu Kyi, South Africa has Mandela, the Czech Republic has Havel. We don’t have anyone. In order to improve, speaking from a technical standpoint, we need an interlocutor.”

The Peace Prize has created such an opportunity. Ye Fu says: “Think about it. If there were no Peace Prize, who would this interlocutor be? Perhaps the person would have already been beaten to the point where he could not continue. Now the Peace Prize confers to Liu Xiaobo — rather, this prize is given by the Chinese Communist Party, this is the interlocutor the Party has chosen. If it weren’t for those 11 years in prison, if not for the harshest methods, this would not have led to this point. The Peace Prize’s prestige allows Liu Xiaobo to become the interlocutor of the few dissidents. Historically speaking, I believe this time and this moment will bring about a profound influence.”

From the annoying official to the interlocutor, what gives Ye Fu hope in this kind of transformation is this era’s great wave of change.

Some people have said that Liu Xiaobo has won the prize, and will excite the system’s internal conservative strength, thus taking reform several steps back.

Ye Fu does not agree. He believes that the times are already different. “Take a look at our ruling party. Now, they are using underground Party tactics to manage this country. For example, clamping down on your [hypothetical] book. [The party] will not dare to issue a document, or allow for transparency. Liu Xiaobo’s situation was quietly leaked online, and was not mentioned. By using secretive measures to rule a country, the ruling party has represented itself as an underground political party. It itself has a guilty conscience. China is no longer the China of 20 years ago; it has entered into the world, and cannot withdraw. The army can no longer open fire on people.”

In the article Liu Xiaobo wrote prior to going to prison, he wrote: “Even if I live every day under strict surveillance, but [I] have an optimistic belief in China’s future because I got the sense, after dealing with policemen, that this inhuman regime has a guilty conscience. Even its dictatorship tool cannot be regarded as being in the right.”

Liu Xiaobo’s good friend, scholar Mo Zhixu feels the same. “For many years, we have passed on this type of thinking: This is how the world is, it’s a world in which losers are always in the wrong, in which profit overrules justice. The Nobel Peace Prize tells us that the world is actually not this way. This world has a moral baseline, and justice.” He believes that the Peace Prize has an encouragement effect, “just like a snowball.”

Can this snowballing Peace Prize bring greater change?

Ye Fu excerpts a Song dynasty Zen poem on his blog: “A fishing line casts a thousand feet deep in the pond, once a ripple flows, ten thousand follow.” It is a “prophetic poem.” After the Nobel Peace Prize was given, it has already been shown that “ten thousand follow.”

On October 11, Li Rui, Hu Jiwei and other elder CCP leaders published an open letter “Enforce Article 35 of China’s Constitution, Abolish Censorship and Realize Citizens’ Right to Freedom of Speech and Freedom of Press: A Letter to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress” to the NPC Standing Committee.

The open letter avoids talking about the Nobel Peace Prize, but it directly echoes Premier Wen Jiabao’s CNN television interview in which he talked about governmental reform. It criticized the absence of freedom of speech from state leaders down to the people, called for a media publishing law and to remove the censorship system, asked for the propaganda department to comply with trends, to change functions, and to honor the constitutional promise of “freedom of speech and press.”

After the open letter was published, on October 13, Nanjing’s “Modern Express” and Hunan’s “Xiaoxiang Morning Post” had full-page coverage of Wen Jiabao’s CNN interview content, and also invited Central Party School professors to analyze the reform’s more difficult areas, and directly criticized moneyed, influential figures. This was seen as the Chinese media’s heartfelt response to the open letter.

“Think about it a little bit. In today’s China, if a peaceful improvement like the one in 1989 recurs, what will the outcome be? It doesn’t matter if it’s the international atmosphere, or the people’s preparation, or the CCP’s own transformation — all of these are the same. A true interlocutor will appear in the public square, and history may be reversed.” This is what Ye Fu says, though he also notes that “reformers are not the best leaders. Rather, the country’s elite come from within the system. Therefore, the final change will happen within the system. This is the historical pattern, and the role of public enlightenment. Sun Yat-sen was a revolutionary, but the ruler was still Yuan Shi-kai.”

The Nobel Peace Prize continues to move along these undercurrents.

Liu Xiaobo, from Linzhou prison, has already entered history alongside Mandela, Havel, and Mother Teresa.

On March 1989, he wrote in an article: “I cannot retreat, or jump from cliffs, or be destroyed. [If] I want freedom, I must face this impasse.”

He fulfills the idea of freedom, but at the same time he reminds himself of “freedom’s” true meaning — “Whether it is compliant, or rebellious, the victims of totalitarianism are an accomplice to these regimes to some degree.” “If one day, Mainland China intellectuals have all gone through the experience of hardship and struggle for the rights of freedom of speech, then they retaliate against those who censored, and put pressure on those who purged [controversial content], then we will have struggled, but will not have broken the vicious cycle of speech dictatorship: violence for violence, censorship for censorship, oppression for oppression. Freedom of speech and public opinion will then never seen the light of day.”

This is the page in the history books, and it will change. Or will it reincarnate? The secret lies within.