Nobel Peace Prize winner LIU XIAOBO: A long, nonviolent struggle for human rights in China

October 27, 2010

Two student readings describe the history of the imprisoned activist and the human rights situation in China today. Discussion questions follow.

To the Teacher:

Liu Xiaobo, the first Chinese winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, has for more than 20 years demonstrated a passionate, nonviolent commitment to helping China become a land where human rights and the rule of law prevail.

The first student reading below outlines his background, the kinds of activities and views that have led to his being imprisoned four times, the reaction of the government to his award, and concludes with a personal statement that helps to explain Liu's behavior. The second reading opens with some observations by Fang Lizhi, another Chinese dissident, on the Nobel award and the human rights situation in China today and concludes with an account of a recent public protest over human rights by former Chinese Communist officials. Discussion questions follow.

See "China, Rising" in the high school section of TeachableMoment for background on China's history, economic progress, relations with the U.S., and the Tiananmen protests.


Student Reading 1: 

A Chinese prisoner who wants to "defuse hate with love"

Liu Xiaobo is not the first person to win the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison. That was a German pacifist, Carl von Ossietzky, in 1935, who had been jailed by the Nazis. But Liu, the 2010 Nobel winner, who has been imprisoned repeatedly, is the first Chinese person to receive the prize. (He is known as Liu because in China, the family name comes first, then the given name.)

Liu Xiaobo (pronounced liew shou-boh) went to prison for the first time in 1989, after participating in a hunger strike with three other men in support of student protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. The student protests called for a less authoritarian government and other reforms. Just hours before the military assault on the protesters that resulted in hundreds of deaths, Liu helped persuade some of the demonstrators to leave the square.

After his release in 1991, the New York Times reports, Liu was "stripped of his teaching job but continued to gather petitions pressing for democracy, human rights and the reassessment of the government's verdict on Tiananmen. In 1995, his unbowed activism led to an eight-month detention, and in 1996, he was sentenced to three years in a labor camp for a series of essays that criticized the government." (Andrew Jacobs and Jonathan Ansfield, "Jailed Activist In China Wins Nobel for Peace," ( 10/9/10)

Liu's most recent arrest, in 2008, came one day before the release of Charter 08, a petition calling for China's leaders to guarantee civil liberties of free expression, assembly, and religion, an independent judiciary and free elections. Liu's name was at the top of the petition. Charter 08 was published on the internet on December 10, the 60th anniversary of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Although more than 8,000 people have signed Charter 08, most Chinese know nothing about it because officials have blocked them from viewing it on the Internet

On December 25, 2009, Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison on a charge of "inciting subversion of state power."

The Nobel award and the official Chinese reaction

The Nobel Committee, in awarding the prize to Liu, cited "his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China." The committee added that "in practice, these freedoms have proved to be distinctly curtailed for China's citizens."

But the Chinese Foreign Ministry called the decision to give Liu a Nobel prize a "desecration" that would harm Norwegian-Chinese relations. (The Nobel Prize originates in Norway.) "The Nobel Committee's giving the peace prize to such a person runs completely contrary to the aims of the prize. Liu Xiaobo is a criminal," declared a ministry spokesman. China then cancelled meetings about food safety with Norway's fisheries minister and exchange visits of top Chinese and Norwegian officials.

President Obama, last year's Nobel peace laureate, called on China to release Liu and said, "China has made dramatic progress in economic reform and improving the lives of its people." But, he said, "political reform has not kept pace."

Liu's background and current status

Born in 1955, Liu earned a B.A. in literature. He also earned M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from Beijing Normal University, where he became a teacher. In 1988-1991 he was a visiting scholar at Columbia University, the University of Oslo, and the University of Hawaii. He left Columbia to join the student demonstrations in Tiananmen.

After the Nobel award was announced, Chinese government officials allowed Liu's wife, Liu Xia, to visit her husband in prison. According to Human Rights in China, "her husband told her, 'This is for the lost souls of June 4th' [at Tiananmen in 1989] and then wept.", 10/11/10)

Liu Xia, a photographer, is now under house arrest in the couple's Beijing apartment. She told the Associated Press, "I am not allowed to meet the press or friends." Her cellphone has been disconnected.

Liu is serving his sentence at Jinzhou prison in Liaoning, according to the Washington Post, "hundreds of miles from his home and from his wife, Liu Xia, in Beijing. In an interview shortly before the Nobel announcement, Liu Xia said she was...grateful that he has been allowed to read and exchange regular letters with her. 'We have no regrets,' she said. 'All of this has been of our choosing. It will always be so. We'll bear the consequences together.'" (John Pomfret, "China's Liu Xiaobo Wins Nobel Peace Prize,", 10/8/10)

Newsweek reported on October 8 that the "Chinese cyberpolice have been doing their best to prevent news of Liu Xiaobo's award from spreading ... blocking searches on his name and barring access to some foreign media websites, with only partial success." However reports did appear briefly on the Wall Street Journal's Chinese-language website, prompting messages of support on Chinese blogs and on Twitter. Though Twitter is officially blocked in China, Newsweek reports, "net-savvy citizens have figured out how to use proxy servers to access the service." Beijing police "have reportedly already rounded up a number of people who tried to hold an event celebrating Liu's award..." (, 10/8/10)

Nevertheless, on October 15, some of Liu's Chinese supporters managed to post a letter online calling for his release, a halt to government harassment of his wife, and a guarantee of "peaceful transition toward a society that will be, in fact and not just in name, a democracy and a nation of laws." (New York Times, 10/16/10)

Liu's 2009 statement: 'I have no enemies'

While Liu Xiaobo was in prison in December 2009 and awaiting a trial that produced an 11-year sentence, he managed to release a statement, "I Have No Enemies--My Final Statement." Below is an excerpt:

"But I still want to tell the regime that deprives me of my freedom, I stand by the belief I expressed twenty years ago in my June Second Hunger Strike Declaration -- I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentence me, are my enemies. While I'm unable to accept your surveillance, arrest, prosecution or sentencing, I respect your professions and personalities. This includes Zhang Rongge and Pan Xueqing who act for the prosecution at present: I was aware of your respect and sincerity in your interrogation of me on 3 December.

"For hatred is corrosive of a person's wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation's spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society's tolerance and humanity, and block a nation's progress to freedom and democracy. I hope therefore to be able to transcend my personal vicissitudes in understanding the development of the state and changes in society, to counter the hostility of the regime with the best of intentions, and defuse hate with love." (, 10/8/10)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why was Liu Xiaobo imprisoned for his participation in the Tiananmen protests? What were those protests about? Why do you think Chinese officials regarded Liu's actions as "inciting subversion of state power"? 

3. What led to Liu's three additional imprisonments? If you need more information, how might you find it?

4. Based on what you find in this reading, how would you explain why Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and why Chinese officials object so strenuously to it?

5. Why do you suppose that Liu Xia is under house arrest? How would you explain her remark that "All of this has been of our choosing. It will always be so. We will bear the consequences together?"

6. What is Liu's explanation for rejecting "enemies" and "hatred" in his December 2009 statement? According to Liu, what makes hatred "corrosive of a person's wisdom and conscience"? How would you explain his "respect" for the "professions and personalities" of those involved in his imprisonment? 

7. What other famous people do you know of whose views are similar to Liu's? In what ways were their lives similar to Liu's? Different?


Student Reading 2: 

The continuing struggle for human rights in China

Views of another Chinese dissident

In praising the Nobel Peace Prize award to Liu Xiaobo, Fang Lizhi, a fellow Chinese dissident, writes, "the committee has challenged the West to reexamine a dangerous notion that has become prevalent since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre: that economic development will inevitably lead to democracy in China...

"According to human rights organizations that monitor the situation in China, there are about 1,400 political, religious and 'conscience' prisoners spread around in prisons or labor camps across China. Their 'crimes' have included membership in underground political or religious groups, independent trade unions and non-governmental organizations, or they have been arrested for participating in strikes or demonstrations and have publicly expressed dissenting political opinions...

"The international community should be especially concerned over China's breach of international agreements to which it is a signatory. Besides the UN Declaration on Human Rights, China also signed the UN Convention Against Torture in 1988. Yet, torture, maltreatment and psychiatric manipulation are extensively used in detention and prison camps in China. This includes beatings, the use of leg shackles and/or handcuffs for prolonged periods, extended solitary confinement, severely inadequate food, extreme exposure to cold and heat, and denial of medical treatment." (, 10/11/10)

The essays of Fang Lizhi, an astrophysics professor, which helped to inspire student protests in 1986-1987, got him expelled from the Communist Party. He was also instrumental in inspiring the better-known 1989 Tiananmen protests. To end them, Chinese troops assaulted students in the square and the area nearby. Fang Lizhi and his wife, Li Shuxian, were granted asylum and hid in the US embassy in Beijing for three weeks before being flown to England. The couple later moved to the US, and Fang Lizhi became a Professor of Physics at the University of Arizona. (

A statement by the Chinese Prime Minister

Chinese leaders reacted harshly to the Nobel Peace Prize award to Liu Xiaobo. But only a few days before the prize was announced, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, in a CNN interview on October 3, 2010, with Fareed Zakaria, made the following statement: "I believe freedom of speech is indispensable for any country, a country in the course of development and a country that has become strong... I often say that we should not only let people have the freedom of speech, we, more importantly, must create conditions to let them criticize the work of the government."

But Michael Wines, a New York Times news analyst in Beijing, writes: "Calls for more democracy are common in Chinese politics, but they almost always refer to improving the party's decision-making bureaucracy and making its lower-ranking officials more accountable rather than promoting a broader conception of individual freedom or political competition...Perhaps the clearest signal of the ruling coalition's dim view of of serious change is this: Few of Mr. Wen's remarks on reform [in his October 3 interview on CNN] have been reported nationally by China's state-controlled media." ("China's Elite Feel Winds of Change, But Endure," New York Times, 10/15/10)

Former officials demand freedom of speech and press

On October 11, 2010, 23 retired Communist Party officials, including Mao Zedong's former secretary secretary Li Rui and former People's Daily editor-in-chief Hu Jiwei, called for an end to restrictions on free expression in China. Their statement is addressed to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. Excerpts:

"Article 35 of China's Constitution as adopted in 1982 clearly states that: 'Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.' For 28 years this article has stood unrealized, having been negated by detailed rules and regulations for 'implementation.'" This false democracy of formal avowal and concrete denial has become a scandalous mark on the history of world democracy...

"We have for 61 years 'served as master' in the name of the citizens of the People's Republic of China. But the freedom of speech and of the press we now enjoy is inferior even to that of Hong Kong before its return to Chinese sovereignty, to that entrusted to the residents of a colony...But even today, 61 years after the founding of our nation, after 30 years of opening and reform, we have not yet attained freedom of speech and freedom of the press to the degree enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong under colonial rule."

The former officials declare that "aside from information that truly concerns our national secrets," China's Internet regulatory bodies should not "violate a citizen's right to privacy" or "arbitrarily delete online posts and online comments." Further, "online spies must be abolished." The retired officials also stated that there should be "no more taboos concerning our Party's history. Chinese citizens have a right to know the errors of the ruling party." (China Media Project,

A 'stranglehold on public life'

Eight years ago John Pomfret of the Washington Post wrote: "China has evolved from a totalitarian state, in which the party dominated public and private space, to an authoritarian state, which has allowed unparalleled freedom in the economy and people's private lives but maintains a stranglehold on public life."

Pomfret quoted from an interview with Liu Xiaobo, who was then free (in between his third and fourth imprisonments): "You can say whatever you want in China today," Liu said, acknowledging the huge strides made toward personal freedom since economic reforms began in the late 1970s. Then he added: "As long as you do it alone." ("Under Jiang, Party Changed to Remain in Power,", 11/7/02)

For discussion

1. What questions do you have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. According to Fang Lizhi, how does the Nobel Peace Prize award challenge the notion that "economic development will inevitably lead to democracy in China..."?

3. Why do you think that Fang Lizhi was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party? Why do you suppose he had become a party member? If you don't know, how might you find out?

4. Article 35 of China's Constitution declares that Chinese citizens already "enjoy" the rights named. How would you then explain the treatment of Liu? 

5. In Prime Minister Wen Jiabao's remarks on CNN, he said that "we should...let people have the freedom of speech...[and] let them criticize the work of the government." Who does he mean by "we"? Why, according to Wen, must "we... create conditions" before criticism is permitted? What "conditions" do you suppose he was talking about and why? What do you think Michael Wines would say about Prime Minister Wen Jiabo's remarks?

6. Do you agree with Pomfret's conclusion about China's evolution? Why or why not?

7. Explain the closing quotation from Liu Xiaobo.


This essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them