A Freedom to Write Retrospective: Liu Xiaobo
Each week leading up to the PEN Literary Gala and the conferrence of the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award on May 5, PEN will feature the story of a previous winner. The Freedom to Write Award is given each year to an imprisoned writer who has made significant contributions and endured personal sacrifice in the defense of free expression. Although 35 of the 38 writers who were in prison at the time they won the award have been freed, this week’s featured winner, Liu Xiaobo, is not yet one of them.
On June 26, 1989, then-PEN President Larry McMurtry, Susan Sontag, and E.L. Doctorow sent a letter via telex to Li Peng, premier of the People’s Republic of China, expressing PEN’s “sorrow and outrage at [his] government’s violent response to the peaceful call by Chinese citizens for democracy and greater freedom of expression.”
“In light of China’s earlier progress toward an open and tolerant society,” the letter continued, “we find the harassment, imprisonment, and murder of pro-democracy demonstrators all the more tragic.”
It was the first of many letters PEN would send to Chinese leaders over the next 25 years protesting the treatment of Liu Xiaobo, then simply a cantankerous literary critic who had taken up the call of his fellow citizens and worked to ensure that democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square adhered to non-violence, now a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate serving an 11-year sentence.
In those intervening years, Liu Xiaobo served two other, shorter prison sentences, married a remarkable poet named Liu Xia (now herself detained by authorities) and created remarkable poetry himself, helped found the Independent Chinese PEN Center and served as its president, and heralded a new age of Chinese rights activism by helping to draft and promote Charter 08, a groundbreaking manifesto for Chinese citizens. He was detained two days before Charter 08’s intended release, on December 8, 2008, held incommunicado at an undisclosed location for more than six months, and then tried and sentenced on Christmas Day, 2009, for supposedly “inciting subversion of state power.” Before that, though, while he was still incommunicado, PEN awarded Liu Xiaobo the 2009 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award.
After Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, PEN Member Don DeLillo contributed text to the Nobel Peace Center exhibit I Have No Enemies: “Think of a man alone in a room. This is the writer’s classic condition, cruelly extended when the state locks the door to the room. Think of the writer in opposition, the man who writes against power, who writes against the coiled mechanism of the state and the entire apparatus of total assimilation.” Writers, he said, feel a natural kinship, regardless of borders.
Liu Xiaobo is one of us. He may not be free yet, but we have thousands of members willing to stand in the snow for him, read his words, and write follow-up letters to that 1989 telex calling for his release. We honor him every day with our work, with the signs posted around the office from our 2009 New Year’s Eve rally quoting Charter 08, reminding us that “We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.”
No matter how hard the Chinese government tries to make him disappear, PEN won’t forget him. It’s not over.
WRITING BY LIU XIAOBO
The Internet is God’s Present to China
Four Poems: One Letter is Enough, Longing to Escape, A Small Rat in Prison, and Daybreak
Authoritarianism in the Light of the Olympic Flame
LEARN MORE ABOUT LIU XIAOBO
Read Larry Siems and Jeffrey Yang’s New York Times op-ed, “China’s Nobels”
Read ICPC President Tienchi Martin-Liao’s Deutsche Welle piece, “On the day when Liu Xiaobo is absent at the Nobel prize ceremony”
Read Norwegian Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland’s New York Times piece, “Why We Gave Liu Xiaobo a Nobel”
Read Anthony Appiah’s nomination of Liu Xiaobo for the Nobel Peace Prize
Read Liu Xia’s 2009 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award ceremony remarks, “The Poet in an Unknown Prison”