In Memory of Liu Xiaobo: Creativity and Constraint in Today’s China

A bit I wrote 4 or so years ago after the Pen World Voices Festival about Yu Jie and Liu Xiaobo:

As they bent his fingers back, one by one, the government officials told Yu Jie, a Chinese writer, critic, and defender of free speech, that they would break his ten fingers for the ten thousand characters he had written. For Nobel Laureate, writer and activist Liu Xiaobo, they broke over his head a sentence of eleven years in prison for seven phrases he had written. Seven phrases amounting to a total of 224 Chinese characters that they claim “incite[d] subversion of state power.”

Ten fingers to write, ten fingers broken, tens of thousands of voices silenced under the powerful threat of this eleven-year imprisonment, this illegal sequestration. They have slammed the piano shut on the player’s vulnerable hands, but they did not account for the echo that this violent gesture would generate, that the vibrations would reach the open ears of people long steeped in silence.

In The Pen Report Yu Jie describes the surveillance of he and his wife, of their illegal house arrest in 2010 after Liu Xiaobo was named the Nobel Laureate. Censorship officials of the government blocked his front door with a table, cut his phone line, disabled his internet. Overnight, he and his wife became prisoners in their own home. Their crime is their words. The government knows the power of these words, of ten thousand or two hundred characters. The government seems to believe that they have the power to break the creators, the civil dissidents into submission, to twist these “subversive” words into chains with which they can bind these writers and suppress them.

It is as though the government is plugging a damn with their fingers. The water is seeping through, will burst forth inevitably, yet they apply more pressure, wedge their fingers deeper into the holes, up to the knuckle and past. Still the water leaks. Yu Jie has written the biography of Liu Xiaobo. It has been published and translated, now, in English.

When Liu Xiaobo was named the Nobel Laureate October 7, 2010, he was in prison, sharing a 30m square cell with five other men, studying an English dictionary. Within hours of the announcement from Oslo, Norway, the 420 million “netizens” of China searched “Liu Xiaobo” and “Nobel Laureate.” It seems that few knew of him; his works are all banned from China just as the thirty works of Yu Jie are today. Some were able to view the seven “subversive” phrases on the Internet, but the government immediately began to repress the information about the award and its recipient. News channels like CNN and the BBC went blank on televisions across China when they mentioned Liu Xiaobo’s name. Websites were prohibited from publishing articles about the award. His wife was put under house arrest.

One by one, like fingers bent back, those associated with Liu Xiaobo were “taken to tea” — disappeared by the government for questioning as a means of silencing them and their efforts to draw attention to the Nobel Prize as the award ceremony approached on December 10th. The day before the ceremony, Yu Jie was taken to tea, stripped and beaten with a bag over his head, questioned and tortured, fingers bent, a grave dug for him if the government found it necessary to permanently silence his voice, to cut the strings of the piano and stuff the player inside.

Ten fingers bent back for ten thousand words. Eleven years for seven phrases. And now Yu Jie has written a biography of Liu Xiaobo, and it has been translated into English by HC Hsu .

And what can we do? How can we, ten fingers intact, free to come and go, to post 140 characters on twitter each minute if we choose, to write and read what we choose, to watch what we choose, to say what we feel — how can we help dismantle this Great Firewall of China?

John Ralston Saul, President of Pen International and Salman Rushdie, President of PEN World Voices Festival, offer the simple advice to anyone who is interested in helping: read about it, write about it, pay attention to it. During a conference on The Pen Report this morning, they explained that in America we are accustomed in media to break-throughs, to sudden bursts of information — the Boston bombings and the brothers behind it — these things become illuminated, like a mangled creature caught in headlights, and are shortly forgotten, left in darkness and a trail of exhaust.

As the echo of the piano slammed shut on ten fingers reverberates, we must keep listening and more closely still when silence settles again on the room. Where there is silence, there is surely danger lurking. On the other side of the Wall, we must press our ears to it, we must listen and poke holes where it is weak, push on it with our hands until the Chinese authorities on the other side cannot hold, until their fingers come unplugged from the holes and we flow over, we breach the levee and tidal those who, one by one, bend and break those pushing from their own side.

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