The world has not heard from Liu Xiaobo, its only imprisoned Nobel Peace laureate, for a long time.
Not since his impassioned self-defense in a Beijing court in December 2009, when he declared he had “no enemies and no hatred,” not toward the people who had arrested him, nor the judge who sentenced him on that icy Christmas Day for “incitement to subvert state power” for co-authoring Charter 08, a call for human rights and an end to one-party rule in China.
But Mr. Liu, a long-term advocate of political liberalization in China who also played a role in negotiating the safe exit of students from Tiananmen Square on the morning of June 4, 1989, as the military moved in to quash the democracy movement, could become eligible for parole in less than two weeks.
On June 8, according to China’s criminal code — shortly after the 25th anniversary of the crushing of the Tiananmen protests. June 8 is exactly halfway through Mr. Liu’s 11-year prison term, the point at which parole becomes possible, counting from when he was first detained on Dec. 8, 2008 as Chinese law stipulates.
But there is a major caveat that makes it unlikely that China’s most prominent political prisoner will be paroled so soon, if ever, despite persistent rumors that the government is keen to release him and send him out of the country, finding his global fame an embarrassment. Parole is only available for prisoners who show “regret” or “recognize their guilt,” Chinese lawyers said.
“In China, if you admit guilt, then you can apply for parole and you may get out,” said one lawyer familiar with Mr. Liu’s situation. “That’s a principle here. It’s how things work.” The lawyer asked not to be named for fear of retribution for commenting on such a sensitive political case shortly before the June 4 anniversary.
Would Mr. Liu “admit guilt,” or “认罪” (renzui), as it is known in Chinese?
“Boil a rock. When the rock softens, Liu will be ready to ‘认罪,” wrote Perry Link, who co-edited “No Enemies, No Hatred,” a collection of Mr. Liu’s essays and poems published in 2012. Mr. Link used the Chinese characters for “admit guilt” in the email, adding:
He might, though, play language games. He has done this in the past. When prosecutors found his counterrevolutionary articles on the Internet and asked him to admit his crimes, he answered “Yes, I admit that I wrote those articles.”
Of course he would like to be out of prison. But you are asking (I think) if he would accept parole conditions — no publishing, no public speeches, accompaniment by plainclothes handlers, etc. My guess is that he would accept plainclothes handlers and would talk to them human-being-to-human-being, and would put up with all the external censorship one finds in China — editors refusing his pieces, comments deleted from the Internet, etc. — but would draw the line at self-censorship.
If the conditions were that he must not TRY to speak, write or meet with others, I think there is no chance he would accept them. I think he would prefer prison to doing that.
The lawyer familiar with Mr. Liu’s situation said, “Liu Xiaobo has never admitted his guilt, so it won’t be possible for him to get out now.
“If it were medical parole, that would be a different matter,” the lawyer said, but “his health is O.K.”
Mr. Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, is permitted to see him once a month.
Those meetings are conducted through a thick pane of glass with the two unable to touch, speaking through a telephone while being watched by guards, said Tienchi Martin-Liao, a co-editor of “No Enemies, No Hatred” and the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center — a job Mr. Liu once held — who is in regular phone contact with Ms. Liu, the third editor on the project.
Ms. Liu’s mental state following months of confinement to her home in Beijing, punishment for her husband’s actions, has been precarious. That is no longer the case, Ms. Martin-Liao, who is based in Germany, said in a phone interview. The pending publication overseas of a collection of her poems has helped, she said.
“She is quite O.K. and even sometimes cheerful,” Ms. Martin-Liao said. “We are not that worried. She is allowed not only to meet with her parents, but to go to a restaurant in Beijing. She can meet friends — not many, one or two,” and recently celebrated her birthday, she said. However Ms. Liu is followed and observed by security agents.
Contributing to Ms. Liu’s improvement were reports from several sources that her brother, Liu Hui, who was sentenced to 11 years in jail for financial fraud last year on what family members and friends said were trumped-up charges, had been released on medical parole. The reports could not be independently confirmed.
No one knows exactly how Liu Xiaobo was coping in prison, said Ms. Martin-Liao, but he was believed to be well treated, with a small garden to tend, access to some books and able to do sports.
Referring to Ms. Liu’s monthly visits with her husband, the lawyer familiar with Mr. Liu’s situation said, “We don’t know how his spirits are, as there are a lot of things they can’t talk about on these visits.” He said he believed Ms. Liu had visited her husband in May as usual, despite the currently tense atmosphere ahead of the Tiananmen anniversary. The visits generally take place between the 22nd and 24th day of the month, he said.
The Tiananmen protest movement changed Mr. Liu, who had rushed back to China from a position as visiting scholar at Columbia University to be part of it. Twenty-one years and several incarcerations later, he was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, “for his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China,” according to Nobelprize.org, the official Nobel website.
“I dedicate this prize to all those lost souls who have sacrificed their lives in nonviolent struggle for peace, democracy and freedom,” he said when told of the award in jail.
Mr. Liu would be very reluctant to leave China if that were a condition of parole, Ms. Martin-Liao said.
He may have in mind the words of another Nobel Peace laureate: Carl von Ossietzky, a journalist and pacifist who was awarded the prize in 1936, after being jailed by the Nazis in Germany.
“A man speaks with a hollow voice from across the border,” the Nobel wrote, citing Mr. von Ossietzky in 1933, when the Nazis came to power, on why he did not seek exile despite the danger. Mr. von Ossietzky died in 1938 of illness while in custody.
A third Nobel Peace laureate who was awarded the prize while in detention, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, was released from house arrest in Myanmar in 2010. She may even visit Beijing soon.