Police took Liu Xiaobo away one year ago, a day before the publication of a document he co-authored that called for more civil rights in China and an end to the Communist Party's political dominance. The former professor has been held without charge ever since and allowed just two visits from his wife.
Other Chinese bold enough to put their names to "Charter 08" — an unusually direct call for a new constitution guaranteeing human rights, the open election of public officials, and freedom of religion and expression — have been interrogated or tailed by police as part of a government drive to quash the effort.
A news blackout and Internet censorship have left most Chinese unaware that it exists.
Still, a year later, about 10,000 people have signed "Charter 08" and several signatories said Monday that their aspirations are still alive.
Beijing lawyer Mo Shaoping said the document marks a significant step for China and compared it to the document it was modeled on — a charter written by Vaclav Havel and others in 1977. That declaration helped pave the way for the 1989 Velvet Revolution that swept away the communist regime in what was then Czechoslovakia.
"Only a few hundred intellectuals took part in Vaclav Havel's Charter 77, so it was initially much smaller in scope than ours, but they kept at it and well, everyone knows how that turned out," said Mo, who was barred from representing Liu, the document's chief architect, because he too was a signatory. Two other lawyers from his firm have taken the case instead.
Liu was detained Dec. 8, 2008, the day before the charter was released and held at a secret location for six months. The literary critic and former professor was formally arrested in June on suspicion of "inciting to subvert state power" — a loosely defined charge that carries a maximum sentence of 15 years.
Short visit with wife
His wife, Liu Xia, says she has not seen or spoken to her husband since March when police arranged a short, supervised meeting for the couple in a Beijing hotel room. She now hopes authorities will free her husband soon or convict him quickly so she can at least be allowed regular visits.
"Of course, I would like there to be a miracle and to have him come home tomorrow," said Liu Xia, a rail-thin 48-year-old poet and painter. "They keep delaying and it makes me very anxious not to see him. I will be less anxious (when he is sentenced) because at least I will be able to see him once a month, to write him letters and bring him books."
Her husband is allowed monthly visits from his lawyers. One of them, Shang Baojun, said his client seemed physically and mentally well when he saw him Nov. 23 and reported being allowed smoking breaks in the nonsmoking facility and exemption from prison labor duties.
During his first months in custody, Liu was interrogated almost daily but officials now only meet with him to ask if he is ready to confess but has refused, the lawyer said.
"He doesn't believe what he's done is a crime and says his writing should be allowed under the citizen's right to free speech," Shang said.
Liu is the only person arrested for Charter 08, though human rights groups say others nationwide have been questioned or put under surveillance by police. Many also report being pressured by their employers.
Rebukes raise awareness
After he signed, Beijing law professor He Weifang was reassigned to teach in the remote, far western region of Xinjiang — a move he and many others interpreted as official retaliation. Such rebukes have actually helped raise awareness about the charter, He said.
"Many, many people know about this precisely because there have been consequences for lots of those who signed it," he said during a telephone interview from Shihezi, a factory town on the edge of the Gobi desert, where he now works. He said it was too soon to tell whether any of the charter's aspirations can be realized in China.
"The mere fact that officials must now be aware of the very clear demands many intellectuals have is in itself an important and significant outcome," He said. "There's been no official response so far, but when I signed it, I didn't feel there was a very big possibility that there would be."
Xu Youyu, a retired philosophy professor from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing said police and his school strongly urged him to drop his support for the document but he refused.
"I even wrote an article to explain why I needed to sign it," Xu said. "I think it's been a success because we declared what we think matters and won support both internationally and at home."