Vaclav Havel, who died yesterday, will perhaps be remembered most of all for his role in the civic initiative Charter 77, which led to his country’s Velvet Revolution and inspired dissidents throughout the Soviet bloc to defeat communism. Decades later, “living in truth” – his famous phrase from the essay “Power of the Powerless” – continues to inspire people living under the most repressive regimes. Among these are the signers of Charter 08, a blueprint for a free China based on democracy, the rule of law, and human rights. Perry Link, the China scholar and English-language translator of Charter 08, has written that it was “conceived and written in conscious admiration” of Charter 77. Havel returned the compliment by becoming a staunch advocate for the Chinese “Chartists.”
Liu Xiaobo was perhaps the most prominent one of three hundred initial signers of Charter 08 – the signature list later grew to several thousand. As a result, the Chinese government detained him on the eve of Charter 08’s release in December 2008, and ultimately sentenced him to 11 years in jail for “incitement to subversion of state power.” While in jail, he won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
In January 2010, Havel sent a letter to Hu Jintao, the general secretary and president of the People’s Republic of China protesting Liu’s imprisonment via the Chinese Embassy in Prague.
Here is an excerpt from that letter:
Thirty-three years ago, on Jan. 6, 1977, we, playwright Vaclav Havel; actor Pavel Landovsky; and writer Ludvik Vaculik, were arrested by the police in our own country, then a one-party Communist state, for "committing" exactly the same "crime": the drafting of Charter 77 and collection of signatures with the intent to call on our own government to respect our country's constitution, its international obligations and basic civic and human rights. Later, some of us were also sentenced to long prison terms in politically ordained judicial proceedings, just as the court in Beijing shamefully sentenced Mr. Liu Xiaobo in December 2009.
We strongly believe, and we dare to remind you and your Government, that there is nothing subversive to state security when intellectuals, artists, writers and academics exercise their core vocation: to think, re-think, ask questions, criticize, act creatively, and try to initiate open dialogue. On the contrary, the present and future well-being of a society is undermined when governments suppress intellectual debate.
Mr. President, we would like you to know that we will continue to watch carefully the treatment of Mr. Liu Xiaobo and other signatories of Charter 08. We will, together with many of our colleagues from the Czech Republic and Slovakia who signed the original Charter 77, make continued and sustained efforts to draw international attention to their plight.
Havel kept his promise, as recently as December 8, joining in a committee of Nobel laureates and other well-known figures in a campaign to free Liu Xiaobo.
There will be many tributes to Vaclav Havel. Perhaps he would have appreciated if one of them were a sincere effort by the world’s democracies to free Liu Xiaobo.