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13 July 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 6:19pm

Liu Xiaobo spent his last years in prison fighting for the human rights we are discarding

His death should remind us to cherish and protect the rights we have.

By Louise Reay

Liu Xiaobo, China’s most famous political prisoner, has died while under police guard in hospital, where he was being treated for late-stage liver cancer. Known as a “criminal” by the Chinese government, Liu was one of the spearheads of Charter 08, a manifesto put forward to call for the protection of human rights, constitutional government and other democratic reforms.

Published on 10 December 2008 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Charter 08 was released with 303 signatures from prominent lawyers, journalists, academics and activists. Despite the Chinese government’s best efforts, the document was circulated across the internet and ultimately gathered more than 10,000 signatures.

Approximately 70 of the Charter’s 303 original signatories were summoned or interrogated by police and China’s powerful Central Propaganda Department. Blacklisted by the media, their professional promotions were stalled, research grants cut and applications to travel abroad rejected. But few suffered more than Liu Xiaobo.

Having already spent five years in prison for his support of peaceful Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, from 8 December 2008; two days before Charter 08 was released, he was held for a year without charge, with barely a visit from his wife or lawyer.

Liu was eventually put on trial and in December 2009, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for inciting subversion of state power. On 8 October 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”, but he never had the chance to collect it; represented at the awards ceremony in Oslo by an empty chair. 

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I feel a flush of shame as I reflect on the rise of authoritarianism and the alt-right across Europe and America in recent years, as Liu spent a lifetime fighting for freedom. Surely, the tension between those risking life and limb for their liberty and “the free” voting in autocrats has never been greater. Isn’t the best thing about democracy the freedom to vote in leaders who remove your human rights? It does not feel like overstatement to say that in our current times, freedom is wasted on the free.

Theresa May has been consistently eroding our civil liberties in the realms of surveillance, censorship, cyberspace and immigration, and yet she remains in power. On 6 June, May said in response to the London Bridge terror attacks that she would remove the human rights legislation blocking her crackdown on terrorists. Her exact words were: “If our human rights laws stop us from doing it, we’ll change the laws so we can do it.”

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The need for tough talk and immediate action following three terror attacks on UK soil in three months not withstanding, in any other context those words would feel deeply alarming and authoritarian. Indeed, a UN high commissioner for human rights blasted May’s remarks as “a gift for despots…a gift from a major western leader to every authoritarian figure around the world who shamelessly violates human rights under the pretext of fighting terrorism”.

What hope can there be for the Liu Xiaobos of this world when democratically-elected leaders in “free” countries are making these kinds of public speeches?

The Great Repeal Bill, which will formally enact Brexit will not include the EU charter of fundamental rights, which the government has said it no longer deems necessary once we leave the EU. It specifically states: “The charter of fundamental rights is not part of domestic law on or after exit day.” And, who do you think may have recently passed what’s known as the “Snoopers’ Charter”: considered the most extensive and authoritarian piece of surveillance legislation ever to be passed by a democracy?

Why, our very own British government, of course. Home Secretary Amber Rudd herself proudly claims it’s “world-leading legislation” and is likely to be copied by all sorts of governments and used as a blueprint for intrusive internet surveillance across the globe. However, its very legality is currently being examined by the European Court of Justice. Goethe said: “None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” I would add, “except those who die under police guard unable to leave the country for treatment.” Lest we forget.

Louise Reay is a comedian and documentary maker. Her Edinburgh Fringe show Louise Reay: Hard Mode is at the The Stand Comedy Club between 3 and 27 August.