Czech dissident playwright-president Vaclav Havel, a principal author of East Europe’s Charter 77, rang the door bell at the Chinese Embassy in Prague this week to support another charter author, Liu Xiaobo. Mr. Liu, co-author of a manifesto called Charter 08 and a well-known democracy advocate, received an 11-year prison sentence on Christmas Day by Beijing authorities.
But after three rings, Mr. Havel had to “post” a protest letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao in an outdoor embassy mail slot.
Coming out of a relative seclusion, Havel has described frustration along with other European human rights advocates at the relative Western silence on the hefty sentence given Liu in Beijing.
“We are here now because we are asking the Chinese president and Chinese government not to repeat what happened to us 33 years ago ,where fighters for freedom were pursued and persecuted,” he stated.
The Charter 08 manifesto in China, similar to the Charter 77 document, calls for major democratic reforms, including freer speech and an end to China’s one-party rule, and was signed online by hundreds of ordinary Chinese, intellectuals, and even some mid-level party officials when it first appeared on the Internet in China a year ago.
Havel’s letter called on Mr. Hu to “secure a fair and genuinely open trial for Liu Xiaobo when the court hears his appeal.”
After Charter 08 was published, Liu was immediately placed under house arrest and later detained in an undisclosed location until his sentence two weeks ago. European diplomats trying to attend his trial in Beijing were not allowed in, though Liu’s lawyer said his client was imprisoned on subversion charges unrelated to the controversial movement.
According to China’s state-run news agency Xinhua, "Liu has been engaged in agitation activities, such as spreading of rumors and defaming of the government, aimed at subversion of the state and overthrowing the socialism system in recent years,” citing Chinese police statements.
Last summer, several hundred signers of Charter 08 wrote an open letter on his behalf, asking the state to “make good on the ‘National Plan for Action on Human Rights,’ to end its unconstitutional practice of treating words as crimes, and to release Mr. Liu Xiaobo immediately and without condition. To restore his freedom will be not only to free him personally, but to free all of us.”
Havel, for his part, spent several years in and out of prison in the former Czechoslovakia following his role in the Charter 77 movement, perhaps the first major articulation against the suppression of freedom in the Soviet East Bloc. Havel wrote at the time that the charter emerged out of an increasing awareness by every type of Czech citizen of what he called the “aims of life,” a teleological impulse felt by human beings to express themselves freely.
“There is no freedom without equality before the law, and there is no equality before the law without freedom,” Havel said of the charter in “The Power of the Powerless,” “Charter 77 has given this ancient notion a new...dimension, which has immensely important implications.”
Czech Bishop Vaclav Maly, who accompanied Havel to the Chinese Embassy in Prague, later said, “The world is fascinated by the Chinese economy ... but it is necessary to see not only the economic situation and the economic goals of China but above all the concrete issues of human rights,” adding that rights “must be a basic condition of all treatment and negotiations with China.”
Havel’s works are semi-forbidden in Beijing for their lucid articulations of life in a “post-totalitarian society,” though they have been informally translated and are easily accessible on the Internet.
In the late 1990s, amid a warming intellectual climate in Beijing, there were various “Havel crazes” among scholars, led by the late Li Shenzhi, deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who stepped down after criticizing the killing of students in the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen event.
Havel and fellow Czech writer Milan Kundera have been the subject of intense debates among Chinese intellectuals, with Havel earning recent respect as an advocate of “conscience,” and Mr. Kundera, author of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” being touted for qualities of “wisdom.”
Chinese authorities have been worried for many years, analysts say, about allowing the kind of reforms that led to glasnost and perestroika in the east bloc. Beijing has strongly pushed a Chinese model that emphasizes commercial freedoms without the abrupt open-society reforms seen as responsible for breaking up party control in the former Soviet empire.