LONDON – When former Czech President Václav Havel knocked on the door of the Chinese embassy in Prague to demand the release of the writer Liu Xiaobo, I had an eerie sense of déjà vu. Thirty-three years ago, Havel helped initiate Charter 77, the landmark document that crystallized the ideals of all the dissidents – and many others – trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
Havel, of course, was rewarded with a long jail sentence for his efforts. Now Liu has been sentenced to 11 years imprisonment for much the same crime: initiating Charter 08, perhaps the bravest attempt yet to chart a peaceful way forward to freedom for China.
History is said to repeat itself, first as tragedy, second as farce. And it is indeed farcical for China’s government to try to suppress the yearning for freedom in the same brutal ways that Soviet-era communists once did. For jailing Liu on the absurd charge of trying to overthrow the Chinese state is typical of the type of thinking found in the closed societies of twentieth-century communism, where the state asserted its absolute right to judge every thought and every thinker.
In such a state, the only way to survive was for everyone to become his or her own thought police: self-censoring and never daring to question. But to judge and imprison one’s own mind, or any other mind, is to criminalize civilization.