Thursday, 15 September 2011

Cracked China

The business of a PEN Congress can be slow, ploughing through procedures required of a charity, receiving mandatory reports and so on, but within each day there are moments to treasure.  At the Writers-in-Prison Committee, where we play a very active role, there are messages from friends in the Independent Chinese PEN Centre thanking us for all our work around free expression, in particular our campaigns for Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia.  The surveillance apparatus of the Chinese government continues to grow but we hear stories of resilience, bravery and, above all, hope.

On 10th December 2010, as Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize was laid on an empty chair in Oslo, some PEN supporters gathered in a cafe in Beijing to enjoy the moment together, streaming the ceremony via the internet and so circumventing ‘The Great Firewall of China’.  After a short while the police arrived and announced the quiet celebration must end and the group arrested on no specific charge.   A large picture of Liu was on the wall and as they left to be processed at the station, the senior officer present asked who was in the picture and why they were celebrating him.   ‘That’s Liu Xiaobo, the first person from China ever to win the Nobel Prize for Peace,’ he was told.  The officer looked at him and said: ‘Then why are we arresting you?’

A few months later the world renowned artist Ai Weiwei, designer of Beijing’s famous “bird’s nest” Olympic stadium and a national hero in China, was detained because of his outspoken support for Liu Xiaobo.  It was not reported by official channels at first but within hours over 25 million messages had passed through Sina Weibo (the Chinese state-controlled version of Twitter) expressing outrage at this murky act of state paranoia.  The authorities were forced to issue a statement citing “tax irregularities” but despite their best efforts the tweeting continued throughout the weeks of Ai’s detention, adding internal pressures to the protests around the world. 

 The absence of Liu Xiaobo or any representative at the Nobel ceremony – the first occasion this had happened since the Nazis prevented Carl von Ossietzky receiving his award in 1936 – followed by the detention of Ai Weiwei just months later has seeped into the public consciousness of the West just as word has spread in China.  Silence can only last so long till somebody finally feels compelled to break it.

Drew Campbell

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