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Liu Xiaobo

Charter 08 was more than a document for Liu Xiaobo, it was his whole life

Shen Jian juxtaposes Liu Xiaobo’s entire life with sections from Charter 08, the 2008 pro-democracy manifesto that sent him to jail and eventual death, and asks if those aren’t the values a society should hold dear

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 July, 2017, 11:33am
UPDATED : Friday, 14 July, 2017, 11:50am

What do you believe in?

If you believe in a modern government in which the separation of legislative, judicial, and executive power is guaranteed, then you should have been born in Changchun on December 28, 1955.

If you believe government should be responsible to taxpayers, then you should have gone down with your parents to the Inner Mongolian countryside during the Cultural Revolution.

If you believe the rule of law must be above the interests of any particular political party and judges must be independent, then you should have been a construction plasterer while you waited for universities to reopen.

If you believe we should strictly forbid the use of public offices for private purposes, then you should have studied Chinese literature at Jilin University.

If you believe public officials including police should serve as non-partisans, then you should have been a visiting scholar at Columbia University when the students began demonstrating in Tiananmen Square.

If you believe no one should suffer illegal arrest, detention, arraignment, interrogation, or punishment, then you should have returned to Beijing to support the students.

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If you believe there should be a comprehensive system of democratic elections based on “one person, one vote”, then you should have gone on a hunger strike to protest the undemocratic and irrational ways of both the government and the students.

If you believe the right of citizens to form groups must be guaranteed, then you should have negotiated with the People’s Liberation Army to allow hundreds of students to safely exit from Tiananmen Square before the carnage began.

If you believe there must be no governmental interference in peaceful religious activities, then you should have been detained in Qincheng Prison for 20 months for being a “black hand” who attempted to overthrow the government.

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If you believe in protecting the right to private property and promoting an economic system of free and fair markets, then you should have turned down numerous opportunities to seek asylum outside China.

If you believe in allowing the true value of private property to be adequately reflected in the market, then you should have been sentenced to three years of re-education through labour for writing about peaceful reunification with Taiwan.

If you believe in a regulated and accountable system of public finance that ensures the protection of taxpayer rights and that operates through legal procedures, then you should have married your wife in a labour camp in Dalian ( 大連 ).

If you believe we should reform the ownership system in order to encourage competition among a wider variety of market participants, then you should have co-authored the declaration from which all the italicised text in this article is drawn.

If you believe we should establish a fair and adequate social security system that covers all citizens and ensures basic access to education, health care, retirement security, and employment, then you should have been arrested for co-authoring the italicised text in this article and sentenced to 11 more years in prison.

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If you believe we need to protect the natural environment and to promote development in a way that is sustainable and responsible to our descendants and to the rest of humanity, then your wife should have been placed under indefinite house arrest because you were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

If you believe China should seek to act as a responsible major power contributing toward peace and development in the Asia-Pacific region, then you should have been prevented from getting treatment for liver cancer.

And if you believe we should support the freedoms that already exist in Hong Kong, then you should have died yesterday in a hospital in Shenyang.

Do you not believe in all those things, Hong Kong?

Seven-and-a-half years ago, while on trial for inciting subversion of state power, Liu Xiaobo ( 劉曉波 ) wrote in these very pages about being guilty of “the crime of speaking”. Today, we should all be so guilty.

Shen Jian is a lawyer in Hong Kong. The italicised text in this article is from Perry Link’s translation of Charter 08 in the January 15, 2009 issue of The New York Review of Books