Vera Fennell is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. Her research centers on China, Africa and China in Africa. You can follow her on twitter at @VeraFennell1
In light of American college student, Otto Wambier’s “death” in custody in an authoritarian state, Liu Xiaobo’s death shows how these states treat those in official police custody and the role of international pressure. Other Chinese dissidents, like Wei Jingsheng, author of the 1978 “Big Character” wall poster, “Democracy: The Fifth Modernization”, was tried and arrested in 1979. By 1993, international pressure and, specifically, calls for his release by US President Bill Clinton, lead to his release one week before the International Olympic Committee had to vote on the location of the 2008 Olympics. Wei continued his pro-democracy activism and was re-arrested. He was released in 1997 for medical reasons and deported to the US for treatment.
But the CCP control over media and information is so total, that most of the Tiananmen Square protesters probably did not know who Wei Jingsheng is and what he did.
Liu Xiaobo was more than just a political dissent. He was a professor of comparative literature at Beijing Normal, a teacher’s college. His activism was long and deep. He was chief editor of “Democratic China” magazine and the only writer of the “China Charter 08” to be arrested. The Charter, signed by many human rights activists, called for democratic reforms in governmental structure and an end to one-party rule. For that, only he was arrested and found guilty of “inciting the subversion of state power”. He was a patriot. He loved his country and its people and he sacrificed his life for so they could hear or read of the goals outlined in the Charter.
But, like Wei Jiingsheng, his sacrifice won’t be known to most Chinese in the foreseeable future. The contemporary Communist Party of China has changed; its not your daddy’s communist party, and has allowed an unthinkable level of economic/financial freedom but that’s not the only freedom that counts. For the Party’s own long term survival, it must learn from its past that the future demands the kind of changes that they sacrificed a generation of dissidents for. Then it was economic freedom; next it will be human rights and the freedom from state repression. The empty chair at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony where Liu should have sat (he was still in prison at the time of the awards ceremony and his wife, Liu Xia, a poet was under house arrest though she has not even been accused of committing a crime) remains empty, waiting for a Chinese communist party leader to acknowledge this truth.