Suddenly, the waves of sympathy being expressed by the crowd at the internationales literaturfestival berlin’s Worldwide Reading for Liu Xiaobo swelled into indignation as Herta Müller, Nobel laureate and guest speaker at the event, revealed the contents of an email she’d been forwarded earlier that day from the dissident Chinese poet Bei Ling. In the message, addressed to The British Council, Bei Ling criticizes the fact that only Chinese state-approved writers and organizations are represented at the London Book Fair 2012, where China is the focus. Bei Ling expressed regret and amazement that no exiled or dissident writer from China has been invited to the Fair. Müller said that this kowtowing to China was bad enough when it happened at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2009, but it was even worse in London 2012. The audience certainly agreed and many favoured organizing some kind of public protest against the book fair.
Perhaps Müller’s revelation was especially shocking because we all thought we were gathered to reflect on the repression going on elsewhere – and we were instead confronted with the fact that censorship in China means censorship for us in the West too.
This point was reinforced by Tienchi Martin, president of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre and another one of the guest speakers. She reminded the audience that when a huge power like China mistreats its citizens it is not just a Chinese issue – freedoms across the world are threatened. Economic interests have tethered our lives to China in ways that we’re not even fully aware of. Martin asked the audience if they could imagine going for five days without many of the Chinese-made products that no doubt fill their homes and offices. The extent of China’s influence on us is more far reaching than we’d like to consider, and therefore the eventual effects of China’s internal policies on us, too, may be greater than we can imagine.
As Ulrich Schreiber, director of the literaturfestival, and initiator of the worldwide readings, reminded us at the start of the evening on 20th March 2012, Liu Xiaobo has been incarcerated for 1198 days. He will remain in prison for a further 3018 days unless the Chinese authorities relent. The government shows no signs of revoking Xiaobo’s sentence. Indeed, many other writers and dissidents continue to be detained across China.
Mostly it feels like there’s not much we can do about such injustices, but on occasions like the Worldwide Reading, belief in the power of human solidarity is refreshed, and the will to act is galvanized.
Through a thoughtfully choreographed evening of documentary film, readings, music and discussion at the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin, the literaturfestival created a forum in which all those gathered could reflect on Liu Xiaobo’s life and achievements, the role of China in the world today, and the significance of one man’s fate for the rest of us.
“Maybe for the West the Charta 08 is a very basic thing, just common sense, but for the people of China it is hugely important. They have been fighting for it for years. I think it’s amazing for us to have such a document.” This was the response of Liao Yiwu, a longtime friend of Xiaobo’s, and now a writer in exile himself, after the public reading of Charta 08.
Herta Müller remarked that the document, in its “exactness and humanity”, shows “how necessary Liu Xiaobo is for China. It’s a catastrophe that the regime puts such a person in prison.” She also highlighted the personal dimension of this tragedy, speaking with feeling about Xiaobo’s “stolen life”, and how his wife, Liu Xia, too, has been cut off from the world.
Certainly, Xiaobo’s poems, remind us of the private love story within the very public, politically charged narrative of Xiaobo’s life. He writes of “the nights of love stored away”, and one can’t help thinking perhaps it would now be more apt to say ‘snatched away’. In Longing to Escape, written for his wife, Xiaobo says:
“I would toss aside the pretense of martyrdom
To lie humbly at your feet.
This, saving death, is my one true duty.
Then my heart would be as a mirror.
Reflecting everlasting happiness.”
One audience member asked if Xiaobo knew anything of the worldwide reading, or other initiatives to help him. Tienchi Martin assured the audience that Liu Xiaobo, for all the restrictions on him, “knows he is not alone”. News does trickle in to him through the limited family visits he allowed from his wife and brother.
Xiaobo must know the words of Confucius: “Virtue is not left to stand alone. He who practices it will have neighbors.” The worldwide readings embody this idea, and on 20th March many stood together to honour Liu Xiaobo. We will continue to take this stand until Xiaobo is released.