Dissident’s Trial Highlights Political Turmoil In China

Host Scott Simon speaks with NPR Correspondent Anthony Kuhn about the case of Chinese Dissident Liu Xiaobo. In what could be the biggest political trial in China in recent years, authorities are preparing to try a high-profile, veteran dissident on subversion charges. If convicted, Liu could face up to 15 years in prison.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

This week Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke out about human rights.

Secretary HILLARY CLINTON (Department of State): People should be free from tyranny in whatever form and they should also be free to seize the opportunities of a full life.

SIMON: But some human rights groups that acclaim President Obama's election now complain that he has diminished the importance human rights and U.S. foreign policy by trying to build working relationships with countries that have well-known human rights abuses.

We're going to bring you three reports on human rights cases in strategically important countries. We'll hear about dissidents in Russia and Iran shortly. But first, one of China's most prominent dissidents is expected to be put on trial for subversion as early as this month.

Liu Xiaobo, former professor of literature, was the man behind the Charter 08 petition that called for greater democracy and freedom in China. His wife, Liu Xia, says...

Ms. LIU XIA: (Through translator) Of course my husband and I are firmly opposed to all of the charges against him. Why should we submit to an authority that is built on fear?

SIMON: Mrs. Liu's home is guarded by police. They do not allow visitors, but she managed to come to NPR's Beijing bureau. Police also do not allow her to have an Internet connection. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Beijing. Anthony, thanks so much for being with us.

ANTHONY KUHN: Nice to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: And tell us about this man who is now about to become even more famous around the world.

KUHN: That's right. Liu is a 53-year-old literary critic. He played an important role in the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests, after which he was jailed for a year and a half. He also spent three years in a labor camp from 1996 to 1999, after criticizing the government. And since then he's been a prolific Internet essayist, but he's barred from publishing inside China. So he's really not that well known within China outside intellectual circles.

He was arrested a year ago after helping to organize this Charter 08, this political manifesto calling for human rights and an end to one-party rule. And he was charged with incitement to overthrow the state. His wife, Liu Xia, who we just heard from, says that she thinks that the price her husband has paid for speaking out has been worth it. Let's hear from her again.

Ms. LIU: (Through translator) I feel his individual struggles have been of value, even though they may not change our society. Especially in this society, where we cannot speak freely, he has worked hard to keep his conscience intact and awaken his own sense of social responsibility.

SIMON: Anthony, if as you suggest, that just a small group of people in China who are aware of his activities, and major nations - our own included, the United States - seem reluctant to give him forthright support, why does the Chinese government feel so threatened by Charter 08?

KUHN: Well, on one level it's hard to understand, because the charter really just talks about freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, all things which are in the Chinese constitution, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Another way of looking at it, though, is that the charter crosses certain political lines and infringes on certain taboos. On another level, it's really just, I think, one of the most concise and coherent political manifestos in recent years. And it was drafted by prominent liberal intellectuals, some of whom teach at some of China's most elite universities.

SIMON: Any chance Mr. Liu will be let go or escape a lengthy prison term, or international attention can amount to anything in his path?

KUHN: Well, when cases are prepared for a year, as this one has been, it's very seldom that they come up with a not guilty verdict. The indictment against him says he's committed serious crimes and his wife and lawyer take that to mean that he will get five to 15 years in prison. Both the lawyer and the wife say they will not appeal that verdict because it's just not going to get them anywhere.

SIMON: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing, thanks so much.

KUHN: Thank you, Scott.

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