It is an almost perfect summer day—the sun is shining in a white cloud sky; the air is warm, not yet sweltering. Light filters through white umbrellas shading diners at the outside restaurant by the park. On this almost perfect New York day I am thinking about the rulers in China who have imprisoned for the last nine years one of the country’s courageous thinkers for ideas that will outlast him and his jailers.
Today it was announced Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo is in critical condition, on medical parole having been given a terminal diagnosis. As a principal author of Charter’08 which advocates for nonviolent democratic reform in China, Liu Xiaobo, writer, critic and activist has lived his life as a man of ideas.
As the sun shifts above me, skirting over skyscrapers, finding a gap between the umbrellas and spreading over my table, I consider the trajectory and the life of an idea as it dawns, unfolds, iterates, then flies off where it is embraced, where it empowers and takes on a life of its own. Ideas are connected to, but not owned or encumbered by, those who articulate them.
The fallacy—the fundamental fallacy—of the rulers in China and elsewhere lies here. No one can imprison ideas. No one can manage or own the imagination of another. Government leaders can physically restrain with the hope that the idea will die, but in the case of Liu Xiaobo, the ideas behind Charter ’08, which was signed by more than 2000 Chinese citizens from all walks of life, endure. These ideas calling for a freer society continue to grow wings, often quietly, but sometimes even more quickly as the physical confines grow harsh.
“Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose,” declared Nelson Mandela. It is an injunction worth noting.
If you want to understand politics—it’s like being in a book club where everyone discusses the grammar.
So said actor/comedian Jon Gnarr, Mayor of Reykjavik, Iceland when he addressed the recent 79th PEN International Congress. Gnarr was elected Mayor in 2010 from the Best Party, which he and friends with no background in politics created as a satirical party after the economic meltdown in Iceland a few years ago. They won over a third of the seats on the City Council with a platform that included free towels in all swimming pools, a polar bear for the zoo and “all kinds of things for weaklings.” After he was elected, Gnarr declared he wouldn’t form a coalition government with anyone who hadn’t watched the TV series The Wire.
The politician with a short black tie, a sense of humor and a view of politics as a parallel universe resonated with the audience of over 200 writers at the Opening Ceremonies of the PEN Congress. Writers from 70 centers of PEN gathered to deliberate and debate literature and the situation for writers and freedom of expression around the world, a world they agreed often bordered on the absurd, but the absurd with serious consequences.
The Assembly discussed and passed resolutions on the challenges to freedom of expression in countries including Mexico, China, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, Eritrea, Belarus, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Tibet, and Russia. The delegates walked en masse to the Russian Embassy to present their resolution protesting the recent legislation on blasphemy and “gay propaganda.” And they applauded the announcement during the Congress of the release of Chinese poet Shi Tao 15 months before the end of his 10-year sentence.
“Shi Tao has been one of our main cases since his arrest in 2004, an honorary member of a dozen PEN centers and one of the first and most significant digital media cases,” said Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. “Shi Tao’s arrest and imprisonment, because of the actions of Yahoo China, signaled a decade ago the challenges to freedom of expression of internet surveillance and privacy that we are now dealing with.”
The delegates challenged the secret surveillance of citizens recently uncovered in the United States and the United Kingdom and the prosecution of those who revealed programs violating international human rights norms.
“As an organization dedicated to preserving free expression and creative freedom, PEN is particularly troubled by recent revelations concerning the nature and scope of electronic surveillance programmes in use by the United States’ National Security Agency and parallel programmes such as those being carried out by the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) in the United Kingdom. As leaks about the U.S. government’s PRISM programme, the U.K. governments Tempora programme, and other such programmes make clear, certain governments now possess the capacity to monitor the private telephone, internet and other digital communications of every citizen on earth—among them, the communications of PEN’s 20,000 members worldwide.”
In this parallel universe one of the new centers PEN elected at the Congress was the PEN Center of Myanmar. PEN Myanmar will be an early citizens’ organization there defending writers and civil society in a country that just a few years ago was one of the most closed societies on earth. Also sitting in the glassed waterfront Concert Hall among the Assembly of Delegates were North Korean writers who now meet as an exile center of PEN, but as voices stir and comedians and actors and politicians mingle, who knows the universe that may yet emerge?
(In the past weeks I was brought to focus again on the situation of two writers in prison, one in China, the other in Turkey, both countries that have consistently challenged and imprisoned writers. In China the hope for expanded freedom of expression that came with the Olympics and China’s engagement with global institutions has not materialized, and Chinese writers remain in prison with long sentences. The situation in Turkey for a while was improving, but in the past year arrests have again escalated.)
Voice in China
I had dinner recently with three colleagues of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel laureate and writer currently serving an 11-year sentence in a Chinese jail. Two of his friends, Shen Tong and the other friend arrived in the U.S. around the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, but the younger best-selling writer and democracy activist Yu Jie didn’t leave China until January, 2012 after being detained and tortured and put under house arrest. He now lives in Virginia.
Yu Jie consulted with Liu Xiaobo during the writing of Charter 08, the manifesto calling for democracy in China which resulted in the imprisonment of Dr. Liu. He and Liu Xiaobo also co founded the Independent Chinese PEN Center, and Yu Jie has written a biography of Liu Xiaobo.
At a round wooden table in a bustling Washington restaurant the friends outlined their campaign. Among their strategies, they are working to gather a million signatures worldwide calling for the release of Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest since Liu’s imprisonment. So far they have gathered about half a million signatures in 130 countries, including from 135 Nobel Laureates. The Friends of Liu Xiaobo are also campaigning for the release of other prisoners of conscience in China. They and the Nobel Laureates are mobilizing support around the world and have been told the Chinese government has started to take notice and to worry about the scope of the campaign. Dr. Liu is the only Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in prison.
Here is the link to sign the petition.
* Friends of Liu Xiaobo Twitter: http://twitter.com/lxbfree,
* Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/Free.Liu?fref=ts
Poem by Liu Xiaobo:
A Small Rat in Prison
a small rat passes through the iron bars
paces back and forth on the window ledge
the peeling walls are watching him
the blood-filled mosquitoes are watching him
he even draws the moon from the sky, silver
shadow casts down
beauty, as if in flight
a very gentryman the rat tonight
doesn’t eat nor drink nor grind his teeth
as he stares with his sly bright eyes
strolling in the moonlight
5. 26. 1999
Translated by Jeffrey Yang
Voice in Turkey
I reached into the drawer of my post box in Washington this week and pulled out a card addressed to Doame Leexa-Acker (the name no doubt a reflection of my poor penmanship on the receiving end.) The envelope was from Turkey, and the postcard inside had a picture of Diyarbakir, the ancient city in southeastern Turkey that is the capital of the Kurdish region and the hub of fighting for decades between the Army and the PKK.
In a neatly printed hand the card read:
21 March Newroz Kurdish religiots [sic[ celebrate.
1200 day not free. I’m healt [sic] bad.
I’m free about concerned. I need you children.
I at the house must be. I’ not killer!
I’m writer, lawyer, peacemaker.
I’ hope back you can be. Please.
Grand peace in the door.
Thank you for post cards 🙂
Even with the challenge of English, the appeal resonated. I looked up his case and reminded myself of his situation: Muharrem Erbey is a writer and a human rights lawyer, Vice President of the Human Rights Association. He was imprisoned under the Anti-terror Law in 2009. According to PEN International, he has compiled reports on disappearances and extra-judicial killings in the Kurdish region and has represented individuals in the provincial, national and international courts, including the European Court of Human Rights. He was one of dozens of writers and journalists tried under the auspices of the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) trials which targeted pro-Kurdish writers, publishers, academics and translators, tried together as KCK’s “Press Wing.” He has published articles and co-edited a collection of Turkish and Kurdish language stories. His own short story collection, My Father, Aharon Usta was delayed for publication after his arrest.
Last fall Erbey wrote to those at PEN who had advocated on his behalf: “I send you my heart’s warmth from behind the iron doors and bars and damp, cold, wet walls of prison….My speeches and comments never contained words of violence.”
Circulating a writers’ work and giving voice to those silenced is part of what writers can do for each other. Below is a section of a translated letter from Erbey describing the seasons in prison with a link to the full letter:
I want to tell you how I have experienced the four seasons from behind bars.
Autumn. In the morning, as I reach over the barbed wire crowning this wall six or seven metres in height, the sun as it passes briefly through our ventilation system and away again, the sound of the sparrows that perch on the wire and fly off with the crumbs of bread we toss, the squawking of doves overhead, this sky stained a cold and faded blue, the wind that howls and carries dry fragments of grass through the ventilation – all work the ache of loneliness finely and deeply into me, as the captivity of my shivering body grows a storey higher. I am listening to the sound of the wind. The chattering of clothespegs hanging from the line, the clatter of water bottles roaming the area, flying newspaper scraps and silently wandering dreams, hopes that grow from a whisper to a roar – they strike the wall and go no further.
Winter. There is a weak sun that does not warm you. The air is cold. This place is alien to life, with its endless concrete and iron, these wire fences. The walls’ peeling grey paint, their damp, drains you of energy. Your dreams are caked in dust and soot. At 6 am, as we four men in each room wake to the metallic clank of iron doors, we wish that this were all a dream, but it is not; everything is real. As it happens, prison is the one place one would never want to be when waking. We have this privilege. The prison walls allow everything to pass, except time. I am freezing, my throat dries up, my eyes are burning, there is the weight of tonnes on top of me; it is as if I am tied in steel cord. I cough and I sneeze. In winter prison becomes a prison, and the cold season seems to go on forever. At night we go to the toilet dozens of times.
Spring. Taking root in a crack of broken concrete, seeds brought over the walls and wire by the wind display nature’s irresistible force with the unfurling of their leaves. At first glance you think that the seedling has broken its way out through the concrete. But nature stubbornly allows life to take hold, splitting concrete despite every restriction. An unimaginable aroma of oleaster surrounds us. You know that spring is here from the sound of birds and the smell of flowers. And from the flocks of birds in the sky, and its glittering blue.
Summer. The sun lays waste to it all, as walls and floor turn to a raging fire. I grow drowsy and still. As I shake my head before the spinning ventilator it rises above the walls and the wire fences and I fight to breathe, just as a fish in a tank rises to the surface and, looking desperately at the blue skies, gasps. At night the sound of a soldier whistling intermittently on the watchtower blends with an owl’s hooting. There is a wedding in the neighbouring village. The banging of drums, the women’s ululations and the barking of excited dogs plant a smile on my face just as soon as they steal in through an open window. How sweet to hear life even if we cannot see it!
If only prison did not teach one how beautiful life is. My sons Robin (10) and Robert (5) ask “Daddy, when will you be done here? How long until you come home?” I reply “Not long, not long.” In reality, I do not know when I will be done….
I began this blog four years ago with modest ambition. Once a month I would pause from writing fiction or other work and weave disparate threads of the month’s events and my thoughts together and share in this new form: the blog post. The posts have often had international themes and freedom of expression themes because work and life lead me to other areas of the world and because the freedom of the individual to write, speak and think is fundamental, especially for a writer.
By posting a monthly blog I also sought to join the 21st century in digital form, but the digital century is rushing so fast that a website with a blog post seems almost obsolete. (By next month I hope to have joined, or at least touched, the social media by also posting on an “author’s page” on Facebook.) Whatever the medium, however, the message remains, and the connection of voices around the world has become transformative.
Each month notices of writers under threat come across my desk. I find myself studying the pictures of the writers when there are pictures, writing down their names, and when available, reading some of their work to make them real in my own mind and imagination and later to share their work, which governments hope to silence. Along with other members of PEN I write appeals on their behalf with no definitive measure of how effective these are, but over time the accumulation of protests from writers and others around the world does push open consciousness and prison doors.
In the past month, writers have been imprisoned with long sentences in China, Ethiopia and the Cameroons, had an expired sentence extended in Uzbekistan, been killed in Mexico, threatened with death in India, and released in Myanmar and Vietnam.
China remains the country with the most writers in long term imprisonment, including Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who’s serving an 11-year sentence. In the past month, Chen Wei and Chen Xi have been sentenced to nine and ten years for “inciting subversion of state power,” in part for essays and articles they wrote online criticizing the political system in China and praising the growth of civil society. Zhu Yufu was indicted this month on subversion for publishing a poem online last spring that urged people to gather to defend their freedoms.
In Ethiopia Elias Kifle, an editor of a US-based opposition website, was sentenced to life in prison in abstentia and two journalists who covered banned opposition groups were sentenced and are now serving 14-year terms.
In the Cameroons Enoh Meyonnesse, author and founding member of the Cameroon Writers Association, has been held in solitary confinement and complete darkness for thirty days and denied access to a lawyer and has been sentenced to the harshest conditions for at least another six months.
Muhammad Bekjanov, Uzbek journalist and editor of the now defunct opposition newspaper Erk, had completed his twelve-year prison term, but this month was given an additional five years.
In Mexico reporter Raul Regulo Garza Quirino was gunned down by a gang and became the first journalist in Mexico murdered in 2012. In the past five years over 37 journalists and writers have been killed in Mexico and at least eight disappeared. Most reported on corruption and organized crime.
In India this month Salman Rushdie pulled out of the Jaipur Literary Festival after he was warned by intelligence sources that members of Mumbai’s criminal underworld had put a price on his head.
The redeeming news of the month comes from Myanmar, which still has an estimated 1000 political prisoners, including at least five writers, but the government has released poets, writers and journalists Win Maw, Zaw Thet Htwe, U Zeya and Nay Phone Latt and in late 2011 released Zarganar and lifted restrictions on Aung San Suu Kyi.
And in Vietnam blogger and university teacher Pham Minh Hoang was released, though numbers of writers remain in prison in Vietnam.
Each case has its own individual story, but all share the story of a writer writing what others feared and did not want read. Some cases are complicated by other circumstances, but many are surprisingly straight forward.
The case of Zhu Yufu began with the poem he wrote and posted at the time of the revolutions in the Middle East. The authorities took almost a year before they decided to prosecute him. Zhu’s lawyer said Zhu had nothing to do with the online calls for “the Jasmine revolution” in China; those calls began on overseas Chinese websites.
Below is Zhu Yufu’s poem “It’s Time”:
“It’s time, people of China! It’s time.
The Square belongs to everyone.
With your own two feet
It’s time to head to the Square and make your choice.
“It’s time, people of China! It’s time.
A song belongs to everyone.
From your own throat
It’s time to voice the song in your heart.
“It’s time, people of China! It’s time.
China belongs to everyone.
Of your own will
It’s time to choose what China shall be.
–by Zhu Yufu (translated by A.E. Clark)
We were five PEN members in Beijing, proceeding to Hong Kong where we’d been invited to celebrate Independent Chinese PEN Center’s (ICPC) tenth anniversary. It happened also to be the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party in China as large commemorative plaques proclaimed in Tiananmen Square. And it was the 90th anniversary of PEN International.
We were there to visit writers and book stores and any independent publishers we could find to gather information on the state of literature and freedom of expression in China and to show solidarity with threatened colleagues. Half the members of the Independent Chinese PEN Center lived in China, half outside. A number of ICPC’s members had been sent to prison for their writing, which the government deemed “subversive to the state.” The writing included articles challenging the demolition of old Beijing, food poisoning scandals and the lighting of 1000 candles commemorating Tiananmen Square. The most prominent of these imprisoned members was ICPC’s former president Liu Xiaobo, 2010 Nobel Laureate for Peace who helped draft Charter ’08 which set out a democratic vision for China.
Our first day—our recovery day—several of us visited the Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City as well as a visit to an embassy. In the evening we gathered at a book store with writers and journalists where discussion focused on literature and the shrinking landscape for free expression. Micro blogging (like Twitter, though Twitter is blocked) was proliferating, we were told, and often skirted the censors, but censorship of the internet and traditional forms of writing had intensified.
In the days ahead writers, journalists, scholars and officials in embassies, all agreed that the crackdown on freedom of expression in China hadn’t been this grave since the days of Tiananmen Square. The restrictions since February (when the Arab spring began) included arrests of writers and human rights lawyers, torture, increased surveillance, closing down of events at bookstores and monitoring of all communications and movement of suspected dissidents. Many of the so-called dissident writers and human rights lawyers were so closely watched that police literally sat outside their doors.
On our second day the U.S. Embassy invited our delegation and 14 writers to a forum on freedom of expression. Only three of the fourteen writers showed up. The majority of the other invitees were visited or contacted by police and told not to come. The consequence of disobeying the police could be severe though the writers let us know they wanted to attend. While in Beijing every communication we had by phone or email had a push back, which meant our communications, or those of the recipients, were tracked.
At least six ICPC writers were warned and later blocked from attending the ICPC celebration in Hong Kong. This year China is spending more money (est. $95 billion) on its internal security than on its military budget.
For writing articles, individuals have been put in jail for years, charged with “inciting subversion against state powers.” An image I will take away is of one of the writers we met who had been imprisoned and tortured for writing an article that later became part of a larger public debate. He showed us pictures of himself in his small prison with his fellow prisoners as if he were showing us a family album. This had been his family for almost a decade. On the cover of his small photo album was a picture of Mickey Mouse.
(The night I flew out of China a major train crash on the high speed rail killed at least 39 people. Micro bloggers with over 28 million messages have challenged the censors and the state media as reports and comments on the accident buzz around the country. It will be worth noting who gets prosecuted first—those reporting the incident or those responsible.)
The Potomac River in Washington is frozen, though only with a light crust of ice, not like the Charles River in Boston which appears a solid block that one might stomp across all the way to Cambridge, though in the center a soft spot could crack open at any moment. Measuring the solidity of surfaces can be a matter of life and death.
The image of frozen surfaces arose as I was reviewing for a talk the appeals sent on behalf of writers in prison or killed for their work in the past year. Around 90 Rapid Action alerts (RANs) were sent out by PEN International, which tracks the situation of writers worldwide. I’d sent appeals on approximately half of these. I reviewed the risk and judgment of the writers in these countries. Some regimes were relentless; others, more arbitrary. Governments, like China and Iran, appear to be solid authoritarian regimes that brook little dissent, yet beneath the surface and at the edges, writers and others chip away, laying the groundwork for change that might yet crack open their societies.
The suppression of the writer is a barometer for political freedom in a country and can often be a predictor of events to come.
In July, the arrest of Fahem Boukaddous, a journalist sentenced to four years in prison for “harming public order” by covering demonstrations, foreshadowed both the recent suppression and the protests in Tunisia where the government’s crackdown on writers preceded the fall of the regime itself. Boukaddous and seven other writers have now been released.
In May, the arrests of Belarusian writers, including Vladimir Neklyayev, President of Belarus PEN, for “dissemination of false information” foreshadowed the sweeping arrests of writers, activists and opposition leaders during the presidential elections in December when Neklyayev and others were also candidates. It remains to be seen how the regime of Alyaksandr Lukashenko will hold, given the widespread charges of a flawed election and unrest in the population.
At the beginning of the year, the Chinese government detained and arrested writers, including Zhao Shiying, Secretary General of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Zhao protested the arrest and sentencing of fellow writer Liu Xiaobo to 11 years for his role in drafting Charter ’08, a document that called for democratic reform in China. The year continued with the detention of Chinese writers supporting Liu and democracy and also the arrests of writers in Tibet and the Uyghur Autonomous Region. If the suppression of writers is inversely proportional to freedom and democratic change in a society, then China remains at the top of the list of frozen governments.
The year also began with writers, journalists and bloggers in prison in Iran, followed by further crackdowns on writers, including Nasrin Sotoudeh. Sotoudeh, a writer and lawyer, was sentenced to 11 years on charges that included: “cooperating with the Association of Human Rights Defenders,” “conspiracy to disturb order,” and “propaganda against the state.” Other charges brought against writers in Iran included “congregation and mutiny with intent to commit crimes against national security,” “insulting the Supreme Leader,” “insulting the President,” and “disruption of public order.” The arrests, imprisonments and executions in Iran may give the appearance of a solid block of state power, but it is a block that may yet crack from the edges and the center as citizens continue to stomp across it.
It is worth remembering the precipitous fall 20 years ago of the Soviet Union as pressure for freedom sent fissures through the system that eventually broke the harsh authoritarian surface. As the world watches the current upheavals in the Middle East, one can track back and note the suppression of writers in Tunisia, Yemen and Egypt. The writers and their words are like a heat source that regimes try to trap beneath the surface but instead they soften up the ice.
Washington, DC is emerging from its winter wonderland of nearly two feet of light powdery snow over the weekend. With snow crested on rooftops and banked along the streets, with sparkling lights blinking around town, circling the monuments and the White House, the city looks like a postcard for the holidays.
Over the weekend if you didn’t have to travel, the record snowfall—between 15-20 inches, the largest ever in December—was magical. We walked into a restaurant with a fire place, met with family and friends for lunch then played in the park with our family dogs—one old dog and two puppies—who jumped and romped and tumbled through the snow as if it had fallen for their pleasure, theirs and the children who were sledding down the hill.
But the snow has now begun to melt during the day and to freeze at night, leaving crusty, icy mounds. From the window it is still beautiful, but it is a pain if you are trying to park a car at the curb or walk along paths not dug out when it was fluffy. The holiday lights still blink, and the puppies still race across the white fields as if life was all that it was meant to be.
And yet as I sit here typing this December blog, trying to settle into the holiday spirit, I am acutely aware that half a world away a trial is under way at this very moment in Beijing for a Chinese writer and dissident whose “crime” was to draft, along with other Chinese citizens, a vision–Charter 08–calling for human rights, rule of law and democratic reform in China.
An important writer and literary critic, Liu Xiaobo was held for six months at a secret location, then formally arrested and transferred to a detention center in June, and finally twelve days ago indicted for “incitement to subvert state power.” He is being brought to trial today– December 23–less than two weeks after the indictment and on the eve of Christmas when many diplomats and journalists will be away. His motion to postpone so his defense could have time to read and prepare against the 20 volume indictment was denied. Liu’s wife was told she can’t observe the trial and has instead been named a prosecution witness. Across China activists and supporters of Liu’s have been warned to stay home and not participate in any activities in support of Liu. These actions have led China observers to conclude that the trial is purely political and a guilty verdict has already been determined.
Around the world freedom of expression and human rights organizations and activists are preparing for the worst—a long jail sentence for Liu. A vigil has been called at the Chinese embassy in New York. Petitions are being prepared and at the same time lobbying continues in the hope for some recourse.
At this holiday season when hope is celebrated and rebirth, anticipated, the voice of a single Chinese citizen echoes as light as snow falling on grass and as hard as the frozen earth beneath.
On its 60th Anniversary, China is Still Crushing Freedom
Congress should pass Resolution 151 to speak out on behalf of arrested dissident Liu Xiaobo.
WASHINGTON – The People’s Republic of China celebrated its 60th anniversary today with massive military parades, fireworks, and concerts throughout the country. In mid-November, President Obama will make his first presidential visit to Beijing, marking the 30th anniversary of Chinese-US relations with an agenda likely to include the environment, security, and the global economy.
In the time between these milestones, the fate of an individual Chinese citizen hangs in the balance and may well foreshadow future relations with China. Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s leading writers, intellectuals, and dissidents, is expected to come to trial and be sentenced after the anniversary celebrations and before the president’s visit.
That’s why Congress must act quickly. The proposed Resolution 151 calls for Mr. Liu’s release and urges China to “begin making strides toward true representative democracy.” The resolution notes Liu’s own words: “The most fundamental principles of democracy are that the people are sovereign, and that the people select their own government.”
Resolution 151 should be passed with dispatch before Liu’s trial and sentencing so that it might signal to Beijing how much America cares about the lack of freedom in China. Liu was arrested last December and charged this June with “inciting subversion of state power” for his role as one of the principal drafters of Charter 08, a document that set out a democratic vision for China. Charter 08 was originally signed by more than 300 leading writers, engineers, teachers, workers, farmers – even former public servants and Communist Party officials. It was subsequently signed by more than 10,000 Chinese citizens. The document was circulated widely on the Internet, though it is now blocked in China.
Patterned after Charter 77, which demanded basic civil and political rights in Czechoslovakia when it was under Soviet domination, Charter 08 calls for nonviolent democratic change in China and for a government that recognizes that freedom “is at the core of universal human values,” and human rights are inherent, “not bestowed by a state.”
In a recent visit to Capitol Hill, writers from the Independent Chinese PEN Center, where Liu is a former president, as well as American writers, urged members of Congress to accelerate the passage of Resolution 151. The Chinese writers, who were in touch with Liu up until the day he was arrested, say that they believe a resolution by the US Congress would have a beneficial effect and help mitigate the severity of the sentence, which could be as much as 15 years. However, the resolution needs to pass before his trial and sentencing; otherwise it will come too late.
There is wide bipartisan support for the resolution, but questions arise:
Can this essentially symbolic gesture actually help Liu? The emphatic answer from his Chinese colleagues is yes. Even if he’s not released, Chinese authorities, sensing pressure from China’s chief trading partner, might give a shorter sentence to one of its leading thinkers and writers.
Will this gesture complicate US policy toward China? The question instead should be: How can the US have a policy with China that ignores the imprisonment of major democratic activists?
The release of Liu Xiaobo would be an enlightened act that the Chinese government could take in the wake of its 60th anniversary, signaling to the world that it is not afraid of ideas.
As a young mother, I used to tell stories to my two sons constantly—on the way to school, standing in long lines anywhere, on car, plane or bike rides, on hikes. I would ask each to give me two things (people, ideas, places, plots) they would like in the story, and then I would weave the disparate ingredients into a tale. Their elements might include something like a dog, a butterfly, a battle of some sort, and a waterfall…the possibilities were open and endless, though usually there was some battle involved and some animal in most of the stories.
Over the last year and a half, partly urged by my now adult sons, I’ve committed to writing a blog post once a month. For me the process is a bit similar to the earlier exercise as I look over the month and try to wrap ideas, thoughts, events into 600 words. This month’s elements are particularly rich, probably too rich for a 600-word essay, though the literary form of the blog hasn’t been established or defined so it can, I suppose, be whatever one wants.
I began June at an International PEN Writers in Prison conference joined to the Global Forum on Freedom of Expression conference in Oslo, Norway, where the sun doesn’t set in the summer. In Oslo, activists from organizations around the globe discussed, debated, and strategized into the summer nights about the state of freedom of expression around the world and the mechanisms to protect it. Everyone understood that societies without this freedom are most often without political and civil freedoms as well so the defense of freedom of expression is the front line.
The timing of the conference coincided with the 20th anniversary of the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in China. This year of 2009 is also the 20th anniversary of the popular uprising against the military government in Burma/Myanmar after the election of Aung San Sui Kyi, who was re-arrested this May; it is the 20th anniversary of the fatwa in Iran against Salman Rushdie after the publication of The Satanic Verses, and it is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The year 1989 was a threshold year. So where have we come twenty years later?
After Oslo, I went briefly to Paris en route to Normandy, where the 65th anniversary of the World War II invasion was being celebrated. I was headed to Normandy for a bike trip through the countryside and the historical sites, not for the official celebrations, but I was in Paris the day President Obama and his family arrived. It was also the day of the men’s semi-finals of the French Open in tennis. (You see the elements of this blog complicating…)
Driving back to the hotel after Federer beat Del Potro and Soderling beat Gonzalez, I was talking in my broken French with the taxi driver talking in his broken English about the matches and about the arrival of Obama and about world politics in general. The driver was ebullient—an oxymoron perhaps for a French taxi driver—but he was ebullient nonetheless.
“The world…the U.S….France…Europe…it is hopening,” he said, gesturing with his arms, trying to explain what he meant about the opening he saw in the world and the hope he felt. “We have hopening between us!”
This optimism was more circumspect but also cautiously present among many monitoring free expression. There are serious problems in countries like China, Iran and Burma/Myanmar where writers who speak out are given long prison terms and in countries like Mexico where writers without sufficient protection from the state are killed by criminal cartels, but at the same time citizens are speaking out. One can look at indices that track and analyze freedoms within societies and see that the trend has been towards opening.
That day in Paris the sun was shining, but for the rest of the week and most of the bike ride through Normandy, the skies were grey and drizzling, not dissimilar to the weather during the Normandy invasion. Every now and then the sun would shoot through as we pedaled into the rain and the wind along the coast. At both the American and European cemeteries we—all children of the generation who fought the war—paid quiet homage and in the German cemetery we stood in sober reflection.
The war of our parents was the last world war, though there have been plenty of regional wars and battles since. But in the last twenty years at least, societies have been unlocking and the citizens’ voices have grown in volume and strength. However, neither on the wind-swept coast of Normandy nor on the light-filled avenues of Oslo, did any of us predict that only a few weeks later hundreds of thousands of Iranians would fill their streets. Their call for reform and the opening up of their society still hangs in the air.
In Normandy we met a gentleman now in his late 80’s who worked in the French Resistance during the war. He lived across from the German headquarters, and the night of the invasion his task was to report on what went on there as the Germans realized that the invasion had begun. He was in his early twenties at the time. He spent the rest of his life as a professor, but his participation on the right side of history, his small, but crucial acts remain central to his memory and were honored at the celebrations. Looking back, he could see the long arc of history which at each moment can appear as disparate and unconnected as the separate elements of a story…a dog, a butterfly, a battle, a waterfall…but with the knitting of time and the shaping of history can render a story that almost makes sense.
In August, 1993 in Myanmar, (Burma), Ma Thida, a 27-year old medical doctor and short story writer was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in prison, charged with “endangering public tranquility, of having contact with unlawful associations, and distributing unlawful literature.” She had been an assistant to Aung San Suu Kyi and traveled with Suu Kyi during her political campaign.
In September that same year at the International PEN Congress in Spain, I stepped into the Chair of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee. One of the early main cases that came across my desk was that of Ma Thida.
Last week in Providence, Rhode Island Ma Thida and I shared a stage with others at Brown University in a program: There Will Still Be Light: a Freedom to Write Literary Festival focused on the situation in Burma today as well as the situation for the freedom of writers around the world. For the past year Thida has been at Brown as a fellow of the International Writers Project (a joint appointment of the Writing Program and the Watson Institute for International Studies) which gives a writer under stress a year to work and to share their work and cultural heritage.
Thida and I had met before in London soon after she was released from prison– five years, six months and six days, mostly in solitary confinement–after writers around the world had protested and written letters on her behalf as had those in other human rights organizations. No one knows for certain what levers prompt a government to release an individual so no organization can ever claim the success, but it is clear that pressure from many sources, voices from around the globe, individuals in countries on every continent caring and imagining the fate of their colleagues and acting on that does contribute.
It is a thrill and one feels deep humility when actually meeting the person who has endured, and who, up until that point, has only been represented by words on paper. In Thida’s case as I searched old files, I found fading words on fading fax paper, verses of her poems and parts of stories clandestinely translated and smuggled out by a British official, who was also at the literary festival last week.
Earlier this week another writer Liu Xiaobo, who is under house arrest in China, was honored by PEN American Center’s Freedom to Write Award. Liu Xiaobo is one of the drafters of the Charter 08 manifesto which urges democratic reform in China. He is a well-respected literary critic and writer and former president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. A worldwide campaign for his release is ongoing. One hopes for the day when we might also meet Liu in person. Right now he can be seen and read and heard–no longer on fading fax paper–but on the internet and on You Tube.
The technology of the globe has changed considerably since Ma Thida was imprisoned, but thought has not progressed as rapidly. Recently I was in a meeting in Washington on Capitol Hill relating to human rights and an individual said, “I can’t be worried about a few poets in prison.” The statement wasn’t meant to be callous; the speaker was aware of the complexity of problems in places like Burma and China and of the competing policy needs. The view, which was perhaps intended to sound practical and experienced, is at best short-sighted and at worst dangerous.
As policy is being crafted to try to assist in opening up Burma and China, to increase the space for freedom, to end the abuses of torture and long term imprisonments, as questions of sanctions versus trade, engagement vs. isolation, questions of real politic are debated, let us not forget the poets–and the short story writers, the novelists, the critics, and the journalists–who are on the front line of ideas and therefore often imprisoned. They are among the citizens who will do the opening up in these countries; they are the citizens who live there.
Supporting voices of citizens around the world can help, but it is “the few poets in prison” who will be among those who prepare the lamp and light it and carry it on.
* if the moon does not shine
and the twinkles of the stars are faint
the lamp will be prepared
at the entrance to the house
there will still be light
— from “The Road is Not Lost” by Burmese poet U Tin Moe (1933-2007), imprisoned in Burma from 1991-1995