China's sentencing of dissident Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison for "subversion" signaled a hardening of Communist party authorities who suppressed the news at home over the weekend even as it drew widespread international condemnation.
Mr. Liu was sentenced on Dec. 25, apparently for his co-authorship of Charter 08, a manifesto demanding democratic reform of the one-party state.
The sentencing of the literary critic got wide international news coverage over the weekend and drew unusually strong criticism from Western governments. German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed "dismay" and the United Nations said the case was "an ominous shadow" over China's commitment to human rights.
Diplomats barred from the No. 1 Beijing Intermediate People's Court on Friday said they were told by Liu's lawyers that, in addition to his 11-year sentence, he also would be deprived of political rights for two additional years.
"We continue to call on the government of China to release him immediately," Gregory May, first secretary with the United States Embassy, told reporters outside the courthouse. "Persecution of individuals for the peaceful expression of political views is inconsistent with internationally recognized norms of human rights."
Some veteran China watchers are concerned that strong public reactions may be counterproductive for Liu considering China's traditional placement of group welfare above individual interest, particularly in times of economic strife and political transition.
"When Chinese feel unsafe, and the government feels unsure of itself, 'shaming' [President] Hu Jintao will result in nothing," Tom Doctoroff, the Shanghai-based Greater China CEO of US advertising agency JWT told the Monitor in a Sunday email. "In Liu's case, back-channel negotiations will be more effective, and attention must be focused on allowing the Chinese side to maintain face in the event of Liu's release."
A Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, told reporters on Dec. 22 foreign embassies calling for Mr. Liu's release were practicing "gross interference in China's internal affairs."
The verdict, written by judge Jia Lianchun, said Liu's behavior – his support of the pro-democracy students in 1989, six subsequent essays, and his co-authorship of Charter 08 last year – "has gone beyond the parameters of speech freedom and therefore constitutes a crime."
Teng Biao, a Beijing-based human rights attorney and Charter 08 signatory, said Liu was singled out by the court as the document's most important author. His push for reform goes back 20 years to Tiananmen Square where he tried to help the pro-democracy students, many of whom died in the June 4 military crackdown.
"The Chinese Communist party is afraid of the union of intellectuals and common people, of the strengthening of civil society," Mr. Teng told the Monitor in an email on Sunday.
Beijing blocks Twitter
Liu's verdict triggered thousands of distraught messages of support on Twitter, with users employing proxy servers to access the microblogging site blocked in China by authorities. One post revealed judge Jia's office telephone number and curriculum vitae.
In efforts to stem widespread discussion of the politically sensitive case, government censors clamped down on the Internet over the weekend. The term "11 years" typed into top Chinese search engine Baidu turned up a message that said results were "temporarily unavailable in accordance with relevant laws."
Brief news items by the state-controlled press were scrubbed from the Internet by Friday afternoon. One English-language story remained accessible over the weekend, citing a court statement saying Liu's litigation rights had been "fully protected."
Liu, whom supporters and colleagues frequently describe as even-tempered, will appeal the court's sentence – the harshest yet for "incitement to subvert the state," a charge first used in 1997.
"The court didn't take our opinion into consideration. [Liu Xiaobo] is going to appeal," Liu's lawyer Shang Baojun told The Monitor by telephone on Friday.
In major cases such as these, a panel of three judges typically decides its verdict after consultation outside the court with a committee of party cadres unknown to the defendant and his lawyers, according to Joshua Rosenzweig of the Dui Hua Foundation, a non-profit human rights group. Liu's sentencing followed a trial lasting three hours on Dec. 23.
"The wheels of justice moved too quickly, which leads us to believe that in the case of somebody such as Liu Xiaobo, who has been so vocal in his opposition, it was clear from the start that the government knew what it wanted to do," Mr. Rosenzweig said Friday by telephone from Hong Kong.
Many say Liu's sentencing on Christmas Day was a was a ploy to avoid international reaction while diplomats, activists, and media were on holiday.
Previously, Chinese rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, a Christian, was convicted of "subversion" three days before Christmas in 2006. Five days after Christmas 2007, AIDS-activist Hu Jia was arrested for "subverting state authority."
Only a few Chinese dissidents previously drew such harsh sentences for this particular "subversion" charge, according to Dui Hua records. They include Li Wangyang, who got 10 years in Hunan in Sept. 2001; and Wang Xiaoning, who went to jail in Beijing for 10 years in September 2003.
Liu has 10 days to appeal to three new judges at the Beijing Municipal Higher People's Court. "They'll ask if there was sufficient evidence, if mistakes were made, and if the sentence was appropriate, but the appeal does not need a hearing," Rosenzweig said. "If there's no hearing, then there's no audience for the next step."