A Chinese Intellectual's Arrest

As tens of thousands of Hong Kong people take to the streets today, they will demand many things, including the liberation of Liu Xiaobo.

The arrest on June 23 of China's most famous dissident on a charge of 'inciting subversion of state power' set off a storm of protest around the world and nowhere more intense than in Hong Kong, whose people wonder when police here will be able to make similar arrests.

Already, it is clear that Beijing is worried about the magnitude of the July 1 demonstrations, believing the marchers could undermine the authority of Chief Executive Donald Tsang, according to the South China Morning Post, which said the central government researchers have raised concerns about the numbers of demonstrators, particularly because of the civil service organizations that have joined the march.

"Today it is Liu Xiaobo. Tomorrow it is every member of the democracy movement in Hong Kong," wrote Wong Heiji, a Hong Kong student at National Taiwan University in an article in the Apple Daily on Monday (June 29). "Today's Charter 08 is tomorrow's candlelight vigil for the dead of June 4."

"If we do not support Liu Xiaobo, then the government will use the same method of arresting as criminals people who speak out," said Ching Cheong, a Hong Kong journalist with the Singapore Straits Times in a speech on Sunday. He served 1,000 days in prison in China for 'providing state secrets to Taiwan'. "Ahead of October 1, they will arrest one and then another, reducing the freedom of speech one by one."

Liu's biggest 'crime' was to be one of the main organisers of Charter 08, a manifesto issued on December 10 last year, to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Using China's constitution as its text, it calls for greater freedom of expression, human rights and free elections. Initially signed by 300 people in the mainland, it has since collected 8,600 signatories among Chinese at home and abroad, from different walks of life.

On December 8, two days before its official release, Liu was taken away from his home by police. He was detained at a secret location outside Beijing until his formal arrest on June 25.

His lawyer said last week that the evidence for the charge against him is Charter O8 and more than 20 articles which he has written for foreign publications in recent years. "He does not deny writing the articles and signing the charter," he said. "The question is whether they constitute a crime."

Police told Liu that he could not be represented by his long-time lawyer, Mo Shaoping, one of China's top human rights attorneys, on the grounds that Mo himself was part of the case against him. Mo said that police had given him no documents or evidence to support this claim.

"According to the law, it is only a judge who can make such an order, not the police," Mo said, adding that Liu could be detained for a further seven-eight months, for investigation, with a court hearing in February or March 2010.

"Charter 08 challenges the legitimacy of the Communist Party, by saying that, if it is not implementing its own constitution, what is its right to rule?" said Wang Weiming, a veteran Chinese journalist. "Relations between the government and the public are very tense. It feels insecure. That is why it takes so seriously this challenge from intellectuals who are poorly organised, have no mass support and no money."

The government often uses armed police to deal with demonstrators because they have few channels to express dissatisfaction. According to an official report, 12.1 million people took part in 127,000 unauthorised protests across China last year, resulting in death and injury to 1,120 police, armed police and other officials and 724 civilians.

"The more insecure the government feels, the more it has to clamp down on dissent," said Wang. "It absolutely must prevent any connection between these intellectuals and workers and farmers, the kind of coalition that brought down the Communist governments in Eastern Europe."

In his speech Sunday, Ching Cheong called Beijing 'a government of soyabean residue', a reference to buildings, such as many schools in the Sichuan earthquake zone, which collapse suddenly.

Since 2002, Liu has been chairman of the Chinese chapter of Independent Pen, a world association of authors. The Chinese chapter has 200 members, half of them professional writers. In his last recorded interview before his arrest, Liu said that the number of people writing and speaking Chinese was enormous.

"But for thousands of years, China has never been a country with freedom of expression or writing. Especially since the Communist Party took power in 1949, it has oppressed intellectuals, to the extent of driving some to death, such as Lao She and Shen Congwen. No matter what the pressure of the government and the measures against us, we will continue to strive for the freedom of writing, creativity and opinion," he said.

Liu has a B.A. in literature from Jilin University and an M.A. and a Ph.D from Beijing Normal University, where he worked as a teacher. He has been a visiting scholar at universities in Oslo, Hawaii and New York. During the student protests in 1989, he flew home from U.S. to support the students and helped to persuade them to leave Tiananmen Square to avoid further killings.

Then he was detained for nearly two years in Beijing's Qincheng prison, where political dissidents are held. Then he was sentenced to three years of re-education through labour in the 1990s for demanding an overturning of the verdict on June 4.

Most poignant for Hong Kong people have been interviews with his wife Liu Xia following his arrest. "What has he done? He has written some articles on Chinese politics and expressed some opinions," she said. "This is permitted by the law. They are looking for something to convict him with. When I go, the police follow me. In name, it is freedom. In reality, it is not freedom."

Liu has her head shaven, like a Buddhist nun entering a convent. Weeping, she said: "I am preparing for the worst."

As they watch, Hong Kong people wonder if they are looking at their own future. That is why some will take to the streets on Wednesday.