Thursday, January 7, 2010
Writers Rally for Liu Xiaobo
Fifteen days ago, on December 23, 2009, Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison and 2 years' deprivation of political rights for writing some sentences the Chinese authorities felt "incited subversion of state power." This country seems particularly sensitive to criticism, however factually based. Its response was to silence, and imprison, the writer.
A week ago, on New Year's Eve, while most of us were enjoying holiday festivities, preparing the family dinner or getting ready for a New Year's Eve party, a small group of writers came together and stood in the falling snow on the steps outside the New York City Public Library, to read the seven sentences for which the writer Liu Xiaobo was sent to prison, and to call for his release. Some things haven't changed all that much going into the New Year, it seems. Liu Xiaobo joins 45 other writers now imprisoned in China for, well .... writing.
My New Year's resolution for 2010--which I've already broken, by the way--concerned chocolate and ice cream, among other things. As of today I am making a new one, one that I'm far more likely to keep, and that is to begin more frequently adding my small voice to the others speaking out for writers like Liu Xiaobo.
What's one more little squawk from an obscure Internet blog? Molly Ivins, may she rest in peace, said we need people "in the streets, banging pots and pans"--like they did in Argentina in 2001--to bring about change.) At Christmas time people gather on the sidewalk or on neighbors' doorsteps to sing carols--why not writers assembling on non-holidays, in public places, to read out the words of other writers who are no longer able to write? Why not ordinary bloggers occasionally jumping in to voice their support from the sidelines? You never know who might be listening.
Never underestimate the power of the spoken or written word on a casual reader or passerby--those few words can sometimes change a person's life. Nearly two decades ago, a woman doctor whose resume I typed, happened to mention, as she was leaving, that she had just recently adopted a "prisoner of conscience". "What's that?" I asked. Her random remark led me to seek out more information about these 'thought prisoners'--and I ended up working with Amnesty International for the next eleven years, where I was privileged to meet former men and women who'd survived years of unbelievably harsh and degrading, dehumanizing treatment--people who had been shackled in prisons, starved, force fed or physically broken in workcamps, put into asylums and drugged, or sent away into exile, merely for expressing their views. That one little offhand remark by a stranger took me on a path of no return, so to speak. It compelled me to become less complacent, to not just observe and note, then turn away, but to actually want to join in and try to do something. Life, though, as it always does, intervenes and sometimes I lapse, as my attention is drawn elsewhere--until I'm reminded again--as I was when I saw the above video.
On an official level, governments are still rounding up and punishing people for what they think, what they say, how they say it. (This occurs on the more personal level, too, albeit less severely, but damaging all the same. People still continue to attack, marginalize, isolate and punish others because of differences in politics, religion or strongly held opinions. While a state can deprive someone of his liberty, one's own family, friends, peers, or even employer can retaliate by withholding support, terminating the friendship, chastising, or firing someone, all because one's beliefs or lifestyle or choices in life embarrass, annoy or clash with their own. Small intolerances or state-sanctioned repression--some subtle, others blatant--still playing out on the world stage in the never-ending war between the "Usses" and the "Thems". Evolution, it appears, has yet to occur on this front.
Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years' confinement for writing 224 Chinese characters--for basically saying, for example, that he believes in democracy, and advocating that China discontinue its one-party rule. The Chinese constitution states that its citizens have freedom of speech and of the press. In practice, however, if you try exercising this freedom, you risk being surveilled, harrassed and searched, arrested and imprisoned. He was also a political activist. The powers that be would prefer that he had stayed silent.
They may have silenced Liu Xiaobo temporarily--but not his words. Other writers are seeing to it that his situation is made known and that his words don't disappear. (You can see one of his poems posted today over on Salamander Cove ("Daybreak" under entry #20100107), and a few more on the PEN American Center website, where you can hear them read aloud by writers Paul Auster, Edward Albee, Don DeLillo, and E. L. Doctorow.)
Liu Xiaobo, in his own words:
A little nudge, to remind myself to not slip into such complacency again, to notch my awareness level up a tad or two:
Speaking for the Silenced
Small squeak today by a few,
giant roar tomorrow by the many ...
a little group of writers, standing
in the cold
snow falling, wind blowing words drifting
erase one voice, another takes
then another ...
*Update: February 1, 2010: Liu Xiaobo has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.