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Chair’s Notebook #2 December 30, 2009
“We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.” —Charter 08

This year ends with the sentencing of one of PEN International’s most distinguished colleagues, Liu Xiaobo. Considered by Chinese authorities to be the principal mind behind Charter 08, his sentence of 11 years on charges of “incitement to subversion of state power,” is meant to set a terrible example, which it does. Please read Charter 08, in honour of Liu Xiaobo; here’s why it matters….

Words matter. Charter 08 is a 3000-word statement declared first by 300 dissidents (all citizens, all resident in China) offering to the Chinese people, “in a spirit of duty as responsible and constructive citizens,” 19 principles of democracy that the Charter’s creators believe are essential. Why? Because “the Chinese government’s approach to “modernization” has proven disastrous. It has stripped people of their rights, destroyed their dignity, and corrupted normal human intercourse. So we ask: Where is China headed in the 21st century? Will it continue with “modernization” under authoritarian rule, or will it embrace universal human values, join the mainstream of civilized nations, and build a democratic system? There can be no avoiding these questions.”

History matters. Charter 08 boldly invokes Charter 77, the 1977 declaration by Czech and Slovak dissidents including the playwright who would become president, Vaclav Havel. In barely 600 trenchant words, Charter 08 lays out a simple chronological analysis of China’s last one hundred years; phrases like “warlord chaos” and “cultural illness” and “abyss of totalitarianism” jump off the page. In a mere five sentences, all the banners of modern Chinese history from 1910 to 1989—The May Fourth Movement, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution— are ripped down to reveal a devastating scene: “Tens of millions have lost their lives, and several generations have seen their freedom, their happiness, and their human dignity cruelly trampled.”

Dates matter. The Charter was issued on December 10, 2008, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, the Charter opens with a litany of dates: “A hundred years have passed since the writing of China’s first constitution. 2008 also marks the sixtieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, the thirtieth anniversary of the appearance of the Democracy Wall in
Beijing, and the tenth of China’s signing of the International Covenant on Civil and
Political Rights. We are approaching the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen
massacre of pro-democracy student protesters.” Ah yes; some dates really matter.

Numbers matter. The original Charter bore 300 signatures. Since its appearance, more than 10,000 Chinese citizens have signed the statement. More than 300 Western writers signed an PEN International letter to President Hu Jintao protesting Liu Xiaobo’s detention on December 8, 2008. In December, 2009, just before Liu Xiaobo’s trial, more than 300 Chinese citizens signed a letter of solidarity: We are willing to share responsibility with Liu Xiaobo.

Names matter. All over China, on or around December 10, 2008, signatories were harassed, interrogated, their houses searched, passports removed, bank accounts emptied. Some were detained, notably Liu Xiaobo. Liu was held without being charged for just over one year. On December 23, 2009 he was finally tried; his wife and foreign diplomats were barred from the courtroom. That day Internet writer Liu Di had herself detained (later released) and issued a statement: “For the dignity of Constitution and laws, and for no more imprisonment of the people for their independent opinions, I would prefer to share with Mr. Liu Xiaobo the same case with the same penalty.”

On December 25, 2009, Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years and is also to be denied his political rights for two additional years. He is appealing his sentence, which he must do within ten days.

So must we.

May 2010, as we mark the 50th anniversary of the Writers in Prison Committee, be a year in which progress is made in ending the practice of viewing words as crimes.

Link to all the PEN notebook entries