Liu Xiaobo & Shi Tao by Lucy Popescu

Lucy Popescu

Liu Xiaobo & Shi Tao


Two acclaimed Chinese writers remain in prison despite international calls for their release. In recent months, PEN has launched new campaigns on behalf of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo (LR, July 2009) and Shi Tao (LR, February 2006), to coincide with the change of leadership in China.

On 27 April 2005, Shi Tao, a journalist, poet and dissident writer, was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment and two years’ deprivation of political rights by the Changsha Municipal Intermediate People’s Court for ‘revealing state secrets’. At the time, Shi was well known for his social commentaries published on overseas Chinese-language media such as Democracy Forum ( In 1989, while studying politics, he took part in the wave of student demonstrations that ended in the Tiananmen Square massacre. After graduating in 1991 he worked for a year as a teacher before moving into journalism. He went on to work for various publications as a reporter, editor and director.

Shi’s prosecution stemmed from an anonymous email he had sent to the editor of a New York-based website describing the media restrictions imposed by the Chinese authorities prior to the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Yahoo! Hong Kong and Yahoo! China provided Chinese police with the information that enabled them to link the message to the IP address of Shi’s computer. Shi claimed that his message had merely recorded a newspaper executive’s description to journalists of the official guidelines for maintaining social stability, and that because this information related to public sentiment it couldn’t be construed as a state secret. On 2 June, a court rejected Shi’s appeal without allowing him to attend the hearing.

Twelve months into his sentence, Shi’s health deteriorated dramatically as a result of forced labour. In 2007 he was transferred to another prison, where conditions improved. Later that year Yahoo!, clearly embarrassed by the negative publicity, settled a lawsuit lodged by Shi’s family, pledging to provide an undisclosed amount of ‘financial, humanitarian and legal support’.

In May 2010, seemingly in response to international pressure, Shi was transferred to Yinchuan Prison in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. It is believed that the better conditions there have helped his health to improve. Shi is due for release on 25 November 2014.

Liu Xiaobo was arrested on 8 December 2008, just before the formal release of Charter 08, an extraordinary declaration he had co-authored calling for political reform, greater human rights and an end to one-party rule. He was subsequently held under ‘residential surveillance’, a form of pre-trial detention, in a windowless room at an undisclosed location in Beijing for more than six months. On 25 December 2009 Liu was convicted of ‘incitement to subversion’ and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Liu was a prominent member of PEN and co-founded the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, having first received support from the writers’ organisation in 1989. In that year, Liu left his post at Columbia University and returned to Beijing, where he played a critical role in spreading the pro-democracy movement that was blossoming at the time. He staged a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square in support of the students and called for a sustainable democratic movement. Later, he was instrumental in preventing further bloodshed by calling for non-violence on the part of the students. One of a group of writers and intellectuals labelled the ‘Black Hands of Beijing’ by the government, Liu was arrested following the Tiananmen Square protests. He spent two years in prison and in 1996 was sentenced to a further three years of ‘re-education through labour’ for publicly questioning the role of the single-party system and calling for dialogue between the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama.

The Charter 08 declaration was signed by hundreds of individuals throughout China and formed part of various campaigns designed to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 2010 Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his long and non-violent struggle for human rights in China. He is due to be released on 21 June 2020.

A Facebook group, the Friends of Liu Xiaobo, is aiming to gather a million signatures worldwide for a petition calling for the release of Liu and his wife, Liu Xia, who is under house arrest. So far it has gathered about half a million signatories in 130 countries, including 135 Nobel laureates. Readers may like to sign the petition by visiting

Readers can also send appeals calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, poet and journalist Shi Tao, and all those currently detained in China in violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which China is a signatory, and Article 35 of its own constitution.

Appeals should be addressed to:

His Excellency Mr Liu Xiaoming
Embassy of the People’s Republic of China
49 Portland Place
London W1B 1JL
Fax: 020 7636 2981
Email: or

Request that your letter be forwarded to the Chinese authorities in Beijing.

You can also show your support for Liu Xiaobo and Shi Tao by writing them messages of solidarity in prison. For more details, please email:

Poems by Liu in English translation can be read at:

Update: On 15 April 2013, renowned Turkish pianist and writer Fazıl Say (LR, March 2013) received a ten-month suspended prison sentence for comments he posted on Twitter that were deemed blasphemous. Say is on probation for a five-year period. PEN and other human rights groups are protesting his conviction in violation of his right to free expression.                                                           

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