A little more than a year ago, Chinese intellectual Liu Xiaobo helped author and organize a petition known as Charter '08, which called for greater openness, rule of law, and free speech within the Chinese political system. The petition, which was unveiled on Dec. 10, 2008, eventually attracted some 2,000 signatures in China and the attention of global China watchers.
On Dec. 25, 2009, Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison for "subversion." The sentence was handed down two days after Liu's 3-hour trial in Beijing. Liu had spent the previous year in detention. Although there is little hope of reprieve, his lawyers plan to appeal the decision on procedural grounds.
The Chinese government's wariness about public discussion of political reforms (i.e., apart from factional disputes within the CCP) is nothing new. But Beijing has in the past preferred to handle such matters as quietly as possible, muting voices it perceives as troublesome without bringing more attention from critics and western observers than necessary.
In general, among critics of the Chinese political system, such as rights lawyers and environmentalists, those with extensive contacts in the west have tended, in the past, to receive less extreme or less visible punishments. (For example, while obscure provincial anti-pollution protestors have been jailed or beaten, the well-known environmentalists Yu Xiaogang, who received the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2008, quietly had his passport taken away to limit his activities.)
Now some China watchers believe Beijing is becoming more brazen and confident in flouting international pressure. Hu John Kamm, founder of the Dui Hua Foundation, which advocates for human rights and the release of Chinese
political prisoners, told the New York Times: “Many people see this trial as a tipping point ... The government seems to be getting tougher and more unyielding.”
Liu's case has certainly attracted extensive international attention in the past year. Last January, 300 prominent international writers, including Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, Margaret
Atwood, and Ha Jin, penned a letter calling for his release. In March, Václav Havel awarded the Homo Homini prize to Liu in Praque (in his absence, fellow signatories of Charter ‘08 accepted the award).
In the end, Liu's sentence is the longest ever issued for the charge of "inciting subversion."
Meanwhile another case is attracting foreigners' attention -- and heated speculation as to whether this indicates another turning point of some kind in China. The Times of London and BBC are reporting that a British citizen held for allegedly smuggling heroin in China might face execution -- tomorrow. If he is executed, it will mark the first time a European national has been put to death in China in 50 years.
Mike Clarke/AFP/GETTY IMAGES