In this file photo, a pro-democracy activist holds a picture of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. ((Kin Cheung, File/Associated Press))

Human rights experts are trying to raise awareness about the arrest of one of China's leading intellectuals and dissidents, Liu Xiaobo, who on Christmas Day was sentenced to 11 years in prison for alleged subversive activities.

He was detained in December 2008, just days before the publication of what has turned out to be an explosive political document, Charter 8, which he co-wrote.

Charter 08 calls for an end to one-party rule and the introduction of democratic reforms in China. It was signed, via the internet, by thousands of people, some of them Communist Party officials.

Liu Xiaobo received the most severe punishment of those involved with Charter 08, but other signatories have been detained and questioned.

Carroll Bogert has kept a keen eye on China for more than a generation, since she covered the pro-democracy demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989. After a decade as an international correspondent for Newsweek, covering Russia, China and beyond, she is now the associate director at Human Rights Watch, based in New York City

CBC news producer Jennifer Clibbon interviewed Bogert about her thoughts on Liu Xiaobo's imprisonment and Charter 08 and what it means for international relations. Here are excerpts from the interview.


Carroll Bogert of Human Rights Watch says China waited for international reaction to the arrest of Liu Xiaobo, and there wasn't any.

CBC News: Liu Xiaobo was arrested for alleged subversive activities. But most assume the catalyst was his co-authorship of a petition called Charter 08. Can you explain its significance?

Carroll Bogert:  Charter 08 is a political manifesto. It's calling for human rights and the rule of law in China, sort of constitutional rule. He has been indicted for several articles he had published in previous years. In point of fact, he was singled out among the signers of Charter 08 as a symbol.

He is someone who has been known to Chinese authorities since his participation in Tiananmen [the demonstrations in the square]. He is a leading intellectual. He is also somebody who is vulnerable. He's not like some of the co-signatories of Charter 08 — he's not someone with a background in the Communist Party, for example. For that reason, he's more vulnerable and isolated. I think they chose to make him a symbol amongst the others as a way of frightening dissidents or those who might make similar calls.

The charter is very much modelled on Charter 77, which is the manifesto of the Czechoslovakian dissident movement from 1977, very much, I would say, a cri d coeur of the intellectual class and measured as an historic public appeal for basic standards.

[Charter 08] was published on Dec. 10 [2008]

to celebrate the 68th anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights. So it is rooted in widely accepted human-rights norms that have been part of the challenge to the Communist Party now for 30 years. What made it appear dangerous to the regime is that it circulated on the internet and gained signatories relatively quickly.

If you read the charter, it places this movement and this call for human rights in the context of more than 100 years of Chinese history. It sees itself as part of a broad stream of Chinese history and insists on basic values: freedom, human rights, equality, democracy, constitutional rule. It talks about wanting a new constitution, wanting separation of powers, independent judiciary, clean governance, and elections and freedom of assembly and religion.

CBC News: Charter 08 calls for many things that even people inside the party advocate privately. So where did the petitioners cross the line?

'I can tell you that what motivates many human rights activists in places where human rights activism is genuinely dangerous, is a sense that people who gave their lives for your cause cannot be forgotten.' — Carroll Bogert, Human Rights Watch

Bogert: The basic advocacy of human rights in China remains dangerous. The basic insistence on independent civic participation remains dangerous. We have seen in recent months a real crackdown not just on human-rights advocates, but on the lawyers who defend those human-rights advocates. It is a difficult moment in China, a moment when authorities are sending the signal that they are unwilling to tolerate any green sprouts in this pasture.

The insistence on very basic rights made it in some ways more fundamentally threatening to the party. The right of citizens to form groups is something that the document talks about. That is really at the heart of a very central prohibition that the Communist Party has insisted on. They are very concerned about independent civic associations that are free from the control of the party and might in some way compete with it. And while there is a much widened sphere for personal freedoms since economic reforms began in China more than 30 years ago, that sphere of political freedom has not extended from the individual to groups of individuals who band together to demand it.

If you have to point to one of the articles of Charter 08 that is most terrifying to authorities, it might well be that one, because independent political groups is the giant no-no of Chinese politics today.

CBC News: What about the timing of the charter's dissemination, coming after riots in Tibet in 2008 and then in Xinjiang last summer?

Bogert: Liu Xiaobo is somebody who has called for trying to negotiate with the Dalai Lama and that certainly is not endearing to the authorities in this very sensitive time. In the wake of that kind of unrest, it may have made him particularly noxious.

CBC News: Liu Xiaobo has been a thorn in the government's side for a long time. Tell us a little about his background. He was an academic star and studied in the United States at Columbia University in the late 1980s, a time when relatively few were allowed out of the country. Who was he before he became a political activist?

Bogert: He was a teacher at Beida (Beijing University). He taught comparative literature, very squarely in the tradition of  the highly educated elite of China and an internationalist. He was involved in the

[Tiananmen] movement in 1989, which absorbed the entire student population of Beijing. He played an important role on Tiananmen Square in the final days, when it was clear that the military was going to move onto the square, the students were divided about whether to leave or not. He was instrumental in negotiating with the military to get a lot of the students to leave the square, which really meant that he helped to prevent an even bigger bloodbath. [Liu Xiaobo was jailed for two years following the Tiananmen massacre in June 1989. He also spent several years in "re-education through labour" in the 1990s.]

CBC News: Liu Xiaobo is said to have never got over the massacre, and that he carries the burden of those who died. How was this a defining event for him, as it was for other student protesters?

Bogert:  We see this in the human rights movement in many parts of the world. It's a curious thing that gives rise to questions: How is it that human rights activists, when some are killed, that it does not actually frighten the others? Why don't the people — who have seen what a terrible end you can come to through advocating for human rights — get discouraged and stop?

The answer has something to do with human psychology. When you have seen that, when you have seen your comrades give their lives for a cause and you survive, often your commitment to that cause is redoubled because it is part of your personal tribute to their memory.

I'm not inside the mind of Liu Xiaobo, so it's hard to say what motivates him personally, but I can tell you that what motivates many human rights activists in places where human rights activism is genuinely dangerous, is a sense that people who gave their lives for your cause cannot be forgotten, and they must be honoured in part by a refusal to give up that cause. It is something that totalitarian governments don't count on.

CBC News: The 1989 Tiananmen massacre is still a closed book in China. Is there a sense that until the Chinese government finally addresses the issue, real reform can't happen?

Bogert:  I wouldn't say that reform can't happen. Certain steps could be taken immediately. They could let Liu Xiaobo out of prison right now. But the lack of full accounting for that hugely significant historic incident is still felt keenly by people in positions of power in China. They know it's a shoe waiting to drop. It's a watershed that they can't see the other side of. It's a chicken that is going to come home to roost. It's inescapable, the great incident that hangs over the Chinese Communist Party. They can't deal with it, and yet it must be dealt with.

A democratic system in China, a government that looked like the government that Liu Xiaobo and other signators are calling for in Charter 08, that would be a government and a system that would have to deal with Tiananmen, and would deal with Tiananmen, and that's part of why they are calling for it. 

'It would be wrong to say there has been no political change in China, or no expansion of freedom in China. Obviously, there has. But at the same time there has been a really obdurate and stubborn resistance to certain basic fundamental political changes.'

CBC News: You've watched China now for more than a generation. Some experts point to incremental reform in the country — reform in the criminal justice system and in the legal system — but this arrest seems to negate this. What is the bigger picture? Are we seeing a new crackdown in China? Or is Liu Xiaobo's situation not representative of the overall picture of reform?

Bogert:  It would be wrong to say there has been no political change in China, or no expansion of freedom in China. Obviously there has. But at the same time there has been a really obdurate and stubborn resistance to certain basic fundamental political changes. In that sense, yes, we are in the middle of a crackdown in China. Liu Xiaobo also is a clear signal to the international community. They [the Chinese authorities] took their time getting around to prosecuting him. They waited a full year. They hung on to him for six months while they "investigated" him.

They were measuring what the international reaction would be. And there wasn't any. So they went ahead. I think they were trying to measure what they could get away with, and they found the answer — and they moved ahead on Liu Xiaobo. So he is squarely in the mainstream of where China understands itself to be in human rights vis-à-vis its own people, and where it views itself vis-à-vis the international community. It's central to what's happening in human rights in China today.

CBC News: Canada is among the few countries that has been openly critical of China's human rights record. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper was criticized in this country for being out of step with the times, for having lost valuable business opportunities due to his critical views. What do you make of the ongoing debate about how governments should approach China on the subject of human rights abuses?

Bogert:  Canada's relationship with China is a complex one. It contains many elements. All these diplomatic engagements have many strands. The human-rights relationship is not the only thing on the agenda between the Canadians and the Chinese, clearly.

Having said that, it really is central to all the others. Anybody trying to seriously do business in China today knows what an important issue the rule of law is. The establishment of basic ground rules for human behaviour is critical for the development of business. Freedom of expression is critical for the revelation of tainted milk that ends up killing babies, or putting poisons in toothpaste that gets exported to the West. The lack of transparency, of freedom of expression, of basic rule-of-law values, and of a political system that is balanced and fair to all, the lack of those things is deleterious not only to the citizens of China but also to people who want to engage with China. So, I applaud Harper for criticizing China on human rights grounds. I wish that more leaders of other countries had joined him. I think the fact that they didn't has helped to land Liu Xiaobo in jail.

I think it is important to take the very long view. In the long run, it is precisely these issues of basic constitutional government, democracy and rule of law that is going to make China a valuable business partner and is going to make it a decent government for its own people. It's not easy sometimes to stand up for human rights. It might appear to be inconvenient. But it puts Harper on the right side of history, on this issue at least.