Learning the limits of “freedom” in China
BEIJING – When Liu Xia moved into her new flat here at the beginning of the year, Beijing’s security police moved in too.
Not directly into her apartment, mind you – just out front.
“They built a guardhouse in the courtyard right in front of the building where I live,” she says during an interview at a neighbourhood tea house. “Whenever I go out for a walk they greet me saying, `Heading out?'”
Then they fall in behind.
She was followed to the tea house for this interview.
Liu Xia is a short, slight, soft-spoken woman – a painter, poet and photographer. She doesn’t seem like a candidate for close surveillance by the Chinese state.
But Liu Xia has another distinction: she is the wife of Liu Xiaobo, a 54-year-old literary critic and co-author of Charter ’08, a document calling for democracy in China that has unnerved the ruling Communist party.
Despite a Chinese constitution that guarantees freedom of speech, assembly and even religious belief, all such freedoms have their limits in China and are monitored and controlled by the government.
For people like Liu Xiaobo who dare to challenge those limits – suggesting, for example, that democratic elections would be healthy for China – there are punishments. He has been held in an undisclosed location without charge, without trial and without access to a lawyer for more than six months.
“All of this makes it very difficult to accept the frequent claims by Chinese officials that cases like these are handled, `in accordance with the law,'” observes Joshua Rosensweig, of Dui Hua, a San Francisco-based, non-profit organization that monitors human rights in China.
That cases are handled “in accordance with the law” is a mantra used by government spokesmen whenever foreign journalists ask questions about politically sensitive cases.
On the world stage, China is making phenomenal strides in international diplomacy: closer links with Washington, improving ties with Russia – President Hu Jintao was warmly welcomed in Moscow last week – and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi will visit to Ottawa today, where he’ll meet, among others, representatives of Canadian business.
Meanwhile, in Beijing, the state is not afraid to flex its repressive muscles whenever it deems it necessary. But Liu Xiaobo’s lawyer and international human rights groups continue to contend his detention is unlawful.
Since his arrest on the night of Dec. 8 – two days before International Human Rights Day – Liu Xiaobo has been held in a windowless room somewhere outside Beijing.
“He doesn’t even know where he’s being held,” says Liu Xia, who has been allowed to meet him twice at a location other than his place of detention.
The first meeting was Jan. 1 when the couple was allowed to lunch at a suburban hotel, at a table carefully set with flowers, a bottle of red wine and two police officers.
The second meeting was March 30, also under police supervision.
“He was in a good frame of mind then,” she says. “But he was thin and pale. He hasn’t been allowed outside … he hasn’t exercised.”
He has, however, been granted a TV to allow him to feed his passion for televised sports.
Police said Liu Xiaobo was being held under a form of house arrest known as “residential surveillance.”
But Liu Xiaobo’s lawyer Mo Shaoping says if that is the case, authorities are flouting Chinese law.
According to the law, residential surveillance allows the state to hold a person for six months at their place of residence, where the person can have constant contact with family, as well as access to a lawyer.
But Mo says authorities don’t appear to have upheld any of those obligations. Mo notes Liu Xiaobo isn’t being kept at his lawful residence; doesn’t have constant contact with his family; and continues to be denied access to counsel.
“None of these points have been upheld,” says Mo.
On June 8, when the six-month period ended, police informed Liu Xia her husband would continue to be held following orders from “higher authorities” who say the “investigation” has not yet been completed.
But his detention continues to capture international attention.
As a literary critic and head of China’s Independent PEN organization, acclaimed authors, poets and playwrights like Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Seamus Heaney and Edward Albee, among others, have signed petitions calling for his immediate and unconditional release.
More recently The PEN American Center awarded Liu Xiaobo the prestigious 2009 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write award.
It was not without irony.
“I sent pens and papers to him,” Liu Xia says. “But they were all returned to me.”