Unveiling of the Empty Chair

By | August 21, 2019 at 3:21 pm | No comments | News

The following remarks were made by Richard Stursberg at the unveiling of the Liu Xiaobo Statue in Ottawa on August 13, 2019.

Charter 08, the pro-democracy manifesto that Liu Xiaobo drafted, and the main reason for his subsequent persecution, argues that “freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values [and] democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values.”

While reformist tendencies in China’s “self-strengthening movement” can be traced back to 1898, Liu writes that China’s post civil war Communist government has “thrust the nation into the abyss of totalitarianism” and set in motion “a long trail of human rights disasters” that “stripped people of their rights, destroyed their dignity and corrupted normal human intercourse.”

“Where is China headed in the twenty-first century?” asks the Charter: “Will it continue with ‘modernization’ under authoritarian rule, or will it embrace universal human values, join the mainstream of civilized nations and build a democratic system?”

The government of China’s response to the latter question has not been reassuring. Eleven years later it continues to criminalize dissent and to meet peaceful criticism with intimidation and censorship. Throughout the mainland and in Hong Kong it observes civil society with a mixture of paranoid suspicion and barely concealed authoritarian contempt.

Undeceived by official rhetoric, particularly the 2004 constitutional amendment which bound the government to “respect and protect human rights,” Liu Xiaobo spoke out against the farcical reality of  having “many laws but no rule of law” or a constitution without constitutional government because the “ruling elite continues to cling to its authoritarian power and fights off any move toward political change.” When he enumerated the values that might steer the People’s Republic clear of its endemic official corruption, crony capitalism, inequality and social marginalization he warned that: “Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals.”

In the eleventh of its 19 democratic principles, Charter 08 calls for universal “freedom of speech, freedom of the press and academic freedom.” It memorably insists that “We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.” Of course, Beijing’s determination to do the exact opposite is why Liu then spent most of the rest of his life in prison. During this time, to the government’s enduring shame, he became the world’s best known prisoner of conscience and one of PEN International’s main cases. When the Nobel committee chose him for its 2010 peace prize, the award was placed in an Empty Chair, PEN’s best-known symbol for imprisoned writers and journalists.

In his Nobel acceptance speech, composed in the early stages of a prison sentence that would last up to his death, Liu warned that “hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience [and] can poison a nation’s spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy.” Characteristic of the man, these words embody ideals to which every democratic society should aspire.

PEN Canada is honoured to be part of the Empty Chair initiative which celebrates the life and work of this heroic man.

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