Columns / Discourse / January 29, 2014

Oppression in China: Liu Xia’s suffering, art

The upcoming Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival) is less than a week away and will commence on Jan. 31, 2014. While the occasion will bring much joy and festivities for many celebrants around the world, it will undoubtedly cause great pain for others. One sorrowful figure who will most likely not be taking part in the festivities is poet and well-respected photographer Liu Xia. As the wife of Nobel Peace Prize laureate and political dissident Liu Xiabo, she too suffers from the heavy overcast of the Chinese Communist Party. Xia has been under heavy surveillance since 2009, the year her husband was convicted for spearheading a manifesto against the CCP.

Her husband is currently serving an 11-year prison term in the Haidian District of Beijing. This is not the first time Liu Xiabo has been imprisoned for his anti-government sentiment, but it is by far the longest term he has received. His prolific work of editorials and essays throughout the decades are unabashedly critical of China’s centralized Communist regime. But the pivotal work that ultimately resulted in his 11-year prison sentence is a document aptly dubbed Charter 8; it is based off Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77 and refers to the year the document was written.

Xiabo, along with 302 other Chinese reformers, constructed the manifesto as an open letter to the CCP. It boldly asks, “Where is China headed in the 21st century? Will it continue with this ‘modernization’ under authoritarian rule or will it endorse universal values, join the mainstream civilization and build a democratic form of government? This is an unavoidable decision.” This is indeed the million dollar question of the 21st century.

Charter 8 was posted on the internet on December 10, 2008. It shortly received more than 12 thousand signatures of support from a wide array of individuals (scholars, businessmen, lawyers, writers, poets, civil servants, teachers, peasants and even former CCP members). Xiabo was arrested just two days before its launching.

It calls for the protection of human rights through legal reform and democratic rule. Much of the document should sound quite familiar to American ears as it includes provisions for the freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, separation of powers, checks and balances, judicial independence and constitutional amendments. The manifesto also demands to reform civic education by abolishing the bias political education and examination system. Other notable petitions include environmental protection and the provision of social security for the Chinese people.

As the world moves forward into 2014, Liu Xia remains confined in her small apartment in Beijing. Many people speculate that Xiabo’s 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, while undeniably a commendable success, may have actually made Xia’s situation worse—she was placed under house arrest the same year of her husband’s achievement. To make matters worse, Chinese authorities have also convicted Liu Hui (Xia’s younger brother) for defrauding a man and sentenced Hui to 11 years in prison. Liu Hui subsequently made an appeal to the courts, but the appeal was ultimately rejected. His incarceration leaves Liu Xia financially vulnerable, since he was the one financially supporting her over the last three years.

Authorities have drastically limited Liu Xia’s freedoms despite the fact that she has not been convicted of any crime. She is allowed to visit her parents once a week for a meal but is rarely allowed to see anyone else or talk to anyone by phone. Her monthly visits to Xiapo are heavily monitored and are limited to 30 minutes. Since 2010 she can no longer correspond with him through letters. Having restricted lines of communication, authorities have further isolated Liu Xia by forbidding her to set up exhibits of her paintings and photographs.

The CCP is hell bent on punishing Liu Xia. Fortunately the rest of the world, particularly human rights organizations, is paying attention and refuses to forget her artistry. Although she is more known for her poetry in China, the outside world has taken particular notice of her photography. A network of close friends and colleagues has carefully transported 25 of Xia’s photographs (most measuring 3 by 3 feet) out of China and organized them into several exhibitions in Europe, one in Hong Kong and one in the United States. The U.S. exhibition, held by Columbia University, was entitled “The Silent Strength of Liu Xia.”

These black and white photographs are haunting and unnerving, featuring little dolls with slightly deformed faces and arranged in different positions (some sitting, some lying on the ground facing the floor and some completely covered in fabric). One photo features Liu Xiabo with his left arm holding a doll on his right shoulder and an expression of neutrality on his face. The doll’s mouth remains agape in clear distress, giving the impression that it is wailing. Because Liu Xia cannot communicate due to her house arrest, one can only guess at the meaning behind her photographs. She, like her husband, is one of the countless victims of an authoritarian regime. No amount of China’s newly-gained and rapidly increasing capitalist wealth can ever match the freedoms each human is rightfully afforded to. One can only hope that the global community will continue to pressure the one-party regime into loosening its hold on the Chinese people.

Mydel Santos

Tags:  art artist CCP Charter 8 China Chinese Communist Party Haidian District Liu Hui Liu Xia Liu Xiabo Nobel Peace Prize oppression Photography regime

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