Nobel Prizes: Year In Review 2010

Written by: Robert Rauch

Prize for Peace

Nobel Prizes [Credit: Kyodo/AP]

The Chinese teacher, writer, and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for 2010. Liu was the first Chinese citizen to win a Nobel Prize. In making the award, the Norwegian Nobel Committee cited Liu’s “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” The committee expressed its belief that there was “a close connection between human rights and peace” and, in a rebuke to China, said that the country’s “new [economic] status must entail increased responsibility.” When the announcement was made in October, the recipient was in prison, serving an 11-year sentence pronounced in 2009 for “inciting subversion of state power.” This sentence resulted from his role in the writing and promotion of Charter 08, a human rights manifesto issued in December 2008 on the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the committee noted, “Through the severe punishment meted out to him, Liu has become the foremost symbol of this wide-ranging struggle for human rights in China.” Two previous Nobel laureates had been imprisoned at the time they were awarded the Prize for Peace: the German peace advocate Carl von Ossietzky in 1935 and the Burmese political activist Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991.

Liu was born on Dec. 28, 1955, in Changchun, Jilin province. As a youth he was sent with his family to the countryside to learn farming. Liu received a B.A. degree (1982) in literature from Jilin University and an M.A. degree (1984) and a Ph.D. (1987) from Beijing Normal University. He began teaching at Beijing Normal University in 1984, and during 1988–89 he held visiting appointments in Europe and the U.S. When student protests broke out in Beijing in 1989, Liu returned to China from Columbia University, New York City, and participated in a three-day hunger strike. After the Tiananmen Square incident, in which government troops enforced a crackdown on protesters, Liu negotiated an agreement that allowed the remaining protesters to withdraw and thereby prevented further violence. For his role in the protest, he was arrested and detained for several months; he was also forbidden to teach again in Chinese universities, and his writings were banned. Thus, despite Liu’s relative moderation, there began two decades of surveillance by the government and official curtailment of his activities. Liu was detained on two later occasions before he received the 11-year sentence that made him a cause célèbre among human rights activists around the world.

As rumours began to circulate that Liu Xiaobo was the front-runner for the Prize for Peace, the Chinese government warned the Nobel Committee and the Norwegian government that it would be dangerous to honour him. When Liu was announced as the recipient, China denounced the committee’s action, calling it a “desecration” of the prize and claiming that Liu was a “criminal.” The government instituted a blackout of Western media, although the news reached individual Chinese citizens and spread quickly through less-formal channels. It was reported that his jailers informed Liu of the prize and that his wife, Liu Xia, was allowed to visit him, though she was believed to have been placed under house arrest. A number of Western leaders, including the 2009 laureate, U.S. Pres. Barack Obama, praised the committee’s decision, and once again there were calls for Liu’s release.

Although Liu’s role as an activist came to overshadow his work as a writer and thinker, he published widely. Among his best-known books was his first, Criticism of the Choice: Dialogues with Li Zehou (1988), a critique of the ideas of a contemporary Confucian thinker. Liu also published literary criticism in periodicals, as well as poetry. Most of his writings after the 1980s were published abroad, but copies found their way to China. Honours include the Fondation de France Prize (2004), given by Reporters Without Borders to promote press freedom.

Robert Rauch


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