Interview

Why I’m Going to Oslo

Why I’m Going to Oslo

A Nobel Peace Prize is usually more important in the fact of the awarding than in the ceremony itself, but the unfulfilled pageantry this Friday, Dec. 10, in Oslo will be poignant. Normally, the president of the Nobel Committee says a few remarks about the vaunted history of the award and the year’s recipient, and a short movie about his or her life is screened. There is polite applause, followed by a reverent silence as the laureate is called to the stage to give an acceptance speech. A small box, unexpectedly heavy in the hand, is presented to the awardee, containing the medal itself.

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Chinese essayist and author Liu Xiaobo, will most likely be in a small windowless jail cell inside Jinzhou Prison in northeastern China. His wife, Liu Xia, who had earlier expressed an interest in attending, will be under house arrest in Beijing. All of the Chinese activists, writers, lawyers, and other kindred spirits whom she had recommended be invited in her husband’s stead are now also prevented from leaving China.

But one person on Liu Xia’s list who will attend the Nobel ceremony is Wan Yanhai, a respected longtime AIDS activist and educator. He has been living outside China since May, when official interference made his work on AIDS difficult.

Wan has known Liu a long time. When Wan was himself detained by Chinese authorities in 2002, Liu penned a famous essay about his friend’s disappearance, "Wan: Arrested or Kidnapped?" Wan was one of the original signatories of Charter 08, the online freedom manifesto he signed over MSN instant messenger. When four officers from the Beijing Public Security Bureau knocked on his door in late 2008, he tried to debate with them the merits of Charter 08 — a testament to his bravery and resilience. Last week Foreign Policy caught up with Wan in Washington. Excerpts:

FP: Why did you decide to go to Oslo?

Wan: I’ve been a friend of Liu Xiaobo’s for many years. I’m a supporter of his and we keep a really close working relationship in Beijing. And also, I’m part of Charter 08.

FP: Why has the Chinese government chosen to stop friends and colleagues from leaving China to go to Oslo? Why is it so important to Beijing to prevent their attendance?

Wan: Why? I don’t know. I’m not a part of the regime. But it seems the Chinese government is becoming extremely aggressive. They feel overconfident. They don’t care as much now about the opinions of the West as they once did. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Chinese government cared about Western views; they cared about Congress and the U.S. government. But now they don’t care. They feel that they are stronger. They are confident about their economic abilities.

Before this year, the Chinese government had a history of blocking [activists who traveled outside China] from coming back. Dissidents were not allowed to come back. But today the government blocks people from leaving. They are more confident in controlling people inside China. That is my explanation.

FP: Can you talk a little bit about Liu Xiaobo, and your friendship?  

Wan: Liu Xiaobo is intellectual. He first became famous in the mid-1980s. Some of his early writing and speeches made a lot of public impact. He became extremely controversial and famous over [the 1989 massacre in] Tiananmen Square. So he has been arrested several times. But for most of the past 10 years, the government tolerated his writings, and most of the time he had his freedom. But in the past four or five years, the government tried to exert more control.

Liu lived close to my office and also to my house. Very close. It’s a 13-minute walk. He always worked late and woke up late. Most of the time when I called him in the morning, his wife would answer sweetly and say, "He’s sleeping, and I will let him call you back."

He read a lot of things, mostly about politics. Corruption, human rights issues, civil society, independence. He wrote many things. He wrote an article on my case eight years ago, when I was detained by state security. That was on Sept. 1, 2002.

I think he has a very simple life. When we met for noodles, sometimes he would only have green tea and cigarettes. He was very courteous to others. Many times when [my HIV/AIDS nonprofit group] wanted to invite him to our office in Beijing, he said, "It’s better for me not to give you the trouble." And sometimes we would have public meetings and want Liu Xiaobo to join. But he said it would not be proper for me to join because I may create trouble for you.

That is a common way of thinking among the activists in Tiananmen Square. That is the mentality among activists who suffered a lot. Liu Xiaobo has a very simple life.

FP: Talk about the aftermath of Charter 08, for Liu and for you.

Wan: I have always defended him. When I heard Liu Xiaobo had been arrested [in late 2008], I worked on the petition for his freedom. I defended him when the police came to me to ask why I signed Charter 08. There were four men in my office. They said, "Why did you work to rescue Liu Xiaobo?"

I told the police: Charter 08 is not competing with your party because you have already lost your followers. Although you have a party and your membership, the Communist Party actually doesn’t have many followers. Spiritually, you don’t have followers.

This is one thing. Another thing is, Charter 08 is an ideological statement, not a political party statement. But if you punish Liu Xiaobo, I told them, if you put Liu Xiaobo in detention, Charter 08 can become political. Then it will have more political implications. If you put people like Liu Xiaobo in detention, Charter 08 can become a symbol — a slogan for a democratic movement. But that is just what the government did.

FP: When did you sign Charter 08?

Wan: In the middle of October 2008, Liu Xiaobo sent me an MSN. Liu Xiaobo asked me, "Could you have a look?" and I said yes. And he said, "Don’t be public." I said yes. After a while he said, "Can you sign?" and I said of course. I signed through MSN.

FP: Talk about the symbolism of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.

Wan: Outside China, many people have already forgotten what the communist system really is. After 30 years of watching China’s more open economic policy and cultural development, they forget. But if you look at the key structure of the communist regime, how do the communists define truth? Through the Propaganda Department. How do the communists define enemies? Through the security agencies. The answers are totally black and white. You are either our friends or our enemies. There is nothing in the middle. This type of mentality is still part of the communist regime.

So now the Chinese government’s reaction to the Nobel Peace Prize tells the world how dangerous the communist regime can be as the country becomes richer, more confident, more aggressive.

Recently, a Chinese journalist asked me, "Why did Liu Xiaobo win the Nobel Peace Prize now?" I said, "If Liu Xiaobo did not win the Nobel Peace Prize this year, then this award is not meaningful."