Business, Finance & Economics

China formally charges democracy activist

Updated:

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Chinese prosecutors have formally charged democracy activist Liu Xiaobo with "inciting subversion," a year after he co-authored a call for sweeping political change in China.

The lawyer, Shang Baojun, said by phone that he received the prosecution papers Friday, and that Liu had been formally charged the day before. The lawyer expects a trial anytime after Dec. 20, and likely lasting only a half-day.

Liu could get up to 15 years jail time, with a five- to 15-year sentence "very likely," his lawyer said.

"Charter 08" is a blueprint for political reform in China (see text in English). It calls for an end to the Chinese Communist Party's monopoly on power, multiparty elections, rule of law and the separation of powers.

Upon its release on the internet a year ago, Liu was taken into custody. He has been in detention since then — without charge, until Thursday.

In the past, China has released jailed activists under international pressure. Rights groups were hoping Beijing might do the same for Liu Xiaobo before or after President Obama's visit.

"A lot of people have great hopes for Obama as a person who really believes in human rights," said Wang Songlian, a research coordinator with Chinese Human Rights Defenders. "And a lot of people were hoping that he would come out stronger and raise Liu Xiaobo's name publicly. Unfortunately that didn't happen, and that was very disappointing."

Wang said that for many Chinese activists, Obama's public silence on the issue had let to speculation on a shift in "power dynamics" between the U.S. and China.

"We're afraid that might be true that the U.S. is dependent on China in the financial crisis and feels that it needs to be kinder to China, and not criticize," said Wang. "But we believe it's in the interests of both the U.S. and the Chinese people that the U.S. come out strongly with what it believes, refer specially to China's human rights issues, and not avoid sensitive topics."

While Obama talked in general terms about U.S. values during his China visit, he didn't publicly address China's poor human rights record, she said. That may be an intentional effort to downplay criticism and focus on areas of cooperation, said Wang. But if so, she said, the approach is misguided.

"We think China's lack of transparency on human rights issues has implications on all kinds of topics — pollution targets, carbon dioxide targets, trade — that the U.S. wants to work with China on," said Wang. "You can't divorce these things."

Wang said her group now fears that Charter 08's other authors may be charged too. Zhang Zuhua, a Beijing-based expert on constitutional development, is one co-author. In an interview last year, he said Charter 08 embodied "universal values" which China should gradually adopt, and that he didn't expect change "overnight."

Zhang was detained, questioned and released a year ago. His home was then put under round-the-clock surveillance. According to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, this year security officials "warned him not to give interviews, meet with others or write articles about the anniversary, and threatened to imprison him if he does not comply."

Repeated calls to Zhang's home and cell phone went unanswered Friday.

A Guangzhou-based signer of Charter 08 who goes by the pen name "Ye Du" said he believed the Chinese government had charged Liu because it calculated the costs would be low.

"Foreign governments, especially the U.S., haven't given China much pressure on human rights, so they [the Chinese government] think this won't give rise to much opposition from abroad," he said in a phone interview.

Ye said President Obama has shown the most "sharp regression" in 20 years in terms of U.S. pressure on China's human rights. He mused that this must have something to do with the massive amount of U.S. Treasuries now held by China.

Ye said he was one of the original 303 signers of Charter 08; some 10,000 have now signed the document. On Dec. 9 last year, shortly after Ye signed it, the police came and questioned him for three or four hours, he said.

China's 30 years of economic reforms had achieved "huge improvements" in people's standard of living, Ye said. But he said Charter 08 was critical because the lack of accompanying political reforms had led to many "contradictions" in Chinese society.

Ye is one of some 200 charter signers who on Thursday issued another open letter titled, "We are willing to share responsibility with Liu Xiaobo." (See text in simplified Chinese).

"We're all afraid of being charged," said Ye. "But we must do this. If we didn't, we would let down Liu Xiaobo, and let ourselves down, too — our commitment to freedom and democracy."