Liu Xiaobo, a renowned literary critic, writer, political activist, and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was charged with “inciting subversion of state power,” and sentenced to 11 years in prison for penning seven sentences. His wife, Liu Xia, has been under house arrest since the announcement that he would win the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010.

Liu Xiaobo was formally moved to Jinzhou Prison in Liaoning, his home province, on May 24, 2010. On June 26, 2017—with about three years left in his prison sentence—Chinese authorities transferred Liu to a nearby hospital on medical parole for late stage liver cancer, where he remained under guard. Liu Xiaobo died in Liaoning on July 13, 2017. He was 61. 

Case History

Liu Xiaobo was a renowned literary critic, writer, and political activist. He served as president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center from 2003 to 2007 and then served as an honorary president. He was a professor at Beijing Normal University and was a visiting scholar at several universities outside of China, including the University of Oslo, the University of Hawaii, and Columbia University in New York City.

In the spring of 1989, Liu Xiaobo left his post at Columbia University and returned to Beijing to play a crucial role in spreading the pro-democracy movement, staging a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square in support of the students and leading calls for a truly broad-based, sustainable democratic movement. He was instrumental in preventing further bloodshed in the Square by supporting and advancing a call for non-violence on the part of the students. He spent two years in prison for his role and another three years of “reeducation through labor” in 1996 for publicly questioning the role of the single-party system and calling for dialogue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama of Tibet.

In 2004, Liu Xiaobo’s phone lines and internet connection were cut after the release of his essay criticizing the use of “subversion” charges to silence journalists and activists, and was subsequently the target of regular police surveillance and harassment.

On December 8, 2008, before the formal release of Charter 08—a declaration calling for political reform, greater human rights, and an end to one-party rule in China—police arrived at the Beijing homes of Liu Xiaobo and fellow activist Zhang Zuhua. At 11pm that night, they took both men away and searched their homes, confiscating computers and other materials. Liu’s arrest occurred during a period of several sensitive anniversaries, including the 100-year anniversary of the promulgation of China’s first constitution, the 60-year anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the 30-year anniversary of Beijing’s “Democracy Wall” movement. While Zhang Zuhua was released the following morning, Liu Xiaobo remained in detention. He was held incommunicado until December 31, when he was finally permitted a visit from his wife. He did not have access to a lawyer, and he was denied writing materials while detained at the No. 1 Detention Center of Beijing City. He gained access to his lawyers from the date of his formal arrest on June 23, 2009, until May 24, 2010, when he was transferred to Jinzhou Prison. 

After Liu Xiaobo’s arrest, nearly all of the 300 original signatories of Charter 08 were interrogated in a push to gather evidence against him and crack down on free expression in China. Liu Xiaobo was tried by the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court on December 23, 2009, and pleaded not guilty to the charge of “inciting subversion of state power” for co-authoring Charter 08. The trial lasted less than three hours, and the defense was not permitted to present evidence. Two days later, on December 25, Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison and two years’ deprivation of political rights. The Beijing High Court rejected his appeal on February 11, 2010.

In late May of 2017, Liu was diagnosed with late stage liver cancer and was released on medical parole to a hospital in Shenyang, Liaoning province. On June 26, 2017, the Liaoning Prison Bureau Administration confirmed his hospitalization on its website, stating that Liu was being treated by eight people it described as “well-known tumor specialists.” Shang Baojun, one of Liu’s lawyers, noted the severity of the cancer, saying, “If it was an early stage of cancer, then that would be easier to treat. But at this late stage, the treatment seems much more difficult.” Another lawyer, Mo Shaoping, noted that Liu had been allowed to see family—including his wife Liu Xia, a poet and PEN Member who was placed under house arrest following the Nobel announcement in 2010. He remained under guard and other visitors had been restricted from seeing him.

On July 13, 2017, Liu Xiaobo died in Liaoning. He was 61.

Liu Xiaobo was the winner of the 2009 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. He was poignantly represented by an empty chair at the Nobel ceremony in Oslo. When told of the announcement after October 8, he wept and told his wife, Liu Xia, that it was dedicated to the martyrs of Tiananmen. Liu Xia has been under house arrest since the award announcement.


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