BEIJING - The recent arrest of Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo after he took part in a high-profile signature campaign that calls for more freedoms and political reform is a sign that human-rights issues still touch a raw nerve with the Chinese government.

Liu, a prominent critic of the Chinese government who was imprisoned for 20 months for participating in the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement, was taken away by police on December 8 - shortly after “Charter 08” was circulated online to mark International Human Rights Day and the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

A week later, his whereabouts remain unknown and his wife is still denied access to him, even though Chinese law requires police to notify the families of detainees within 24 hours.

On the same night, another prominent signatory of the declaration, Zhang Zuhua, a constitutional law expert, was detained for 12 hours on suspicion of “inciting the subversion of state sovereignty”.

As of this week, dozens of others across China who have also signed the declaration have been interrogated by authorities, according to rights activists.

Charter 08, initially signed by over 300 intellectuals including lawyers, academics, writers and artists, appeals to the Chinese government to launch widespread political reform, such as granting its citizens speech and religious freedoms, respecting human and civil rights and establishing an independent judiciary, as well as ending its one-party rule.

And thousands of others have added their names to the petition since then, with signatures soaring beyond 5,000 as of this week, according to China Human Rights Defenders, a network of domestic and foreign human rights activists.

According to his lawyer, Mo Shaoping, Liu was probably detained because authorities considered him a chief organizer of the signature campaign.

His arrest and the harassment of other signatories have drawn concern from Western governments and international human-rights groups. Last week, the US State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about Liu’s well-being as well as that of other Chinese citizens who have been interrogated for peacefully expressing their desire for greater freedoms.

A statement from the French European Union presidency this week also expressed “deep concern” at Liu’s arrest and urged China to reveal the reason for Liu’s detention and to respect his rights.

Gao Yu, a dissident writer, said she believed the authorities were nervous that the appeal might trigger a massive call for democracy that will spill over to next year, the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, and spark a fresh round of democratic movements.

“They are using Liu to warn other people against taking action over June 4,” said Gao, who was herself questioned by police over her signing of Charter 08 last week.

Xu Youyu, a retired professor of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said authorities over-reacted to what was a peaceful expression of opinions.

“I think this shows that the political atmosphere is very tense,” he said. “I think the authorities’ move is irrational and is hard to understand … it is not a wise move.”

Xu, a signatory himself, said none of the demands in Charter 08 posed a challenge to the government and warned that the over-reaction would likely prompt more people to get involved.

Bao Tong, a former aide of ousted reformist leader Zhao Ziyang, who lives under continuous surveillance, said the authorities’ nervous reaction to Charter 08 shows just how badly China needs to make those changes for which the appeal is calling.

“This itself proves that Charter 08 is very necessary, because there is no rule of law, no citizens’ rights, no democracy in China,” said Bao, who was arrested just before the Tiananmen crackdown and jailed for seven years. “This was just a minor thing and now it’s totally overblown - this is a very foolish move.”

Nicholas Bequelin, senior researcher at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the unprecedented unity shown by such a large number of prominent citizens across the country had alarmed the authorities, who feared their movement might trigger broader demand for political change.

“My concern is that the authorities want to make an example of Liu Xiubo … I think the statement is that they want to scare the intellectuals,” Bequelin said. “This is the old trick of killing a chicken to frighten the monkeys.”

Just the reverse, “It might damage the party’s ability to bring these people to their party. It just shows how arbitrary and brutal the party can be,” Bequelin said.

But if the arrest of Liu is designed to put off others, it has not succeeded so far. Rights activists say more than 1,200 have signed an open letter circulating on the Internet calling for his release and over 5,000 have signed Charter 08, with the number increasing every day.

Liu, a former literature professor, has long been seen as a thorn in the side of the Chinese authorities for his articles that are openly critical of the government. After Liu’s release from prison in 1991 for his Tiananmen pro-democracy movement involvement, he was closely watched by the authorities and was often put under house arrest around sensitive dates such as the anniversaries of the June 4 Tiananmen crackdown.

He was detained for three years in a “Re-education through Labor” camp between 1996 and 1999 for criticizing the Chinese government. Prior to the 19th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown this year, he was warned by the authorities against writing commemorative articles and was detained for a couple of hours on that day.

Cyber dissident Liu Di said the Chinese government had done itself a disservice by arresting Liu Xiaobo. “I think the arrest of Liu Xiaobao is like dropping a stone onto your own feet,” said Liu, who was also questioned by state security agents for calling for Liu Xiaobo’s release. “If they hadn’t done that, the issue wouldn’t have drawn so much attention.”

Verna Yu is a freelance journalist from Hong Kong.

Author: Verna Yu
Original Source: Asia Times
Date Published: Dec 20, 2008
Web Source: http://www.atimes.com/atimes/China/JL20Ad01.html
Date Accessed Online: 2008-12-20