Worst Christmas ever

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. 



Nassim Taleb is having the best year ever!

The iconoclastic market guru and author of The Black Swan looks back on 2009:

I thought that calendar 2009 was a good year for my thinking activities; taking stock I thought I had satisfied my new year commitment to not be late once, satisfied my ancient Mediterranean avoidance of vulgar work (called "laziness" in modern days by philistines and modern slaves), brought down my "work" activities to under 3 hours a week, while (of course) increasing my income, reduced boring exercise while increasing my fitness, never uttered the word "I am busy" (meaning I was in control of my life), drank good wine, etc. I had spent minimal time with philistines and businessmen, blew away a few heads of state and ministers of finance because I despise bureaucrats & journalists & find them both boring and intellectually inferior to my friends Dupire, Douady, the philosophers & philosophasters, etc. You know you are free when you prefer to turn down invitations by the glorious to accepting them --the first step towards withdrawal and seclusion. I did more raw thinking, pure abstract thinking than ever before, except perhaps in childhood as I had no soccer mum so I could lounge and meditate. I figured out mathematically why nature could not have an animal larger than an elephant, why size is a handicap in complex systems, the "too big WILL fail", etc. but all these seemed childplay. For I never thought that I would see in front of me the result of my life with disastrous consequences for LOGIC, EPISTEMOLOGY, DECISION THEORY, STATISTICAL INFERENCE. Thanks to my friend Raphael Douady who lets me borrow his brain, his intelligence, and his mathematical erudition --he has more mathematical culture than anyone in modern times, except perhaps for his late father Adrien Douady. 16 years of conversations with Raphael ... Only he could bring up cylindrical (even spherical) Brownian motion, Sobolev space, etc. into normally bland discourses. All it took is a long conversation in Raphael's kitchen last November. Now I feel I did something deep.

(Hat tip: Paul Kedrosky)

Sean Gallup/Getty Images for Burda Media