The First "Digital" Peace Laureate

The recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was not in Oslo to receive his award. Instead, Liu Xiaobo--a Chinese writer, professor, husband, and human rights activist--was staring at the four walls of his prison cell in Liaoning, China. Quite symbolically, an empty chair took his place at the prestigious ceremony.

Liu is a prisoner of conscience. He was thrown in prison under unfounded charges of “inciting subversion of state power” for his part in co-authoring Charter 08, a charter calling for political reform, human rights, and an end to the one-party rule in China.

The charter, signed by over three hundred Chinese intellectuals and activists, owes its widespread circulation to none other than the internet, a powerful tool that Liu calls “God’s gift to China”.

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu marked the end of more than a century of Chinese exclusion from the award. So why Liu? Why now? Liu is more than a figure of personal strength and sacrifice for freedom and justice in China, he is also a symbol of the power of the internet. Liu has shown that the internet not only connects people across oceans and distant lands, it also does not bow to repressive governments. Honoring Liu with the Nobel Prize meant honoring columnists, bloggers, and journalists everywhere who stand up tall in the face of oppression. Honoring Liu meant honoring internet activism, a kind of activism whose potential is yet to be seen.  

Masanjia Labor Camp

It was October of 2012 when an unlikely discovery was made in Oregon inside a package of Kmart “Totally Ghoul” Halloween decorations: a letter. A neatly folded letter at that, with Chinese characters carefully mixed with English script. On it, blue scrawl read “Sir: If you occasionally buy this product, please kindly resend this letter to the World Human Right Organization . . . Thousands of people here who are under the persecution of the Chinese Communist Party Government will thank and remember you forever.”

Who was the letter from? Where did it come from? When was it written? How did it end up between the styrofoam of a Halloween decoration purchased in Oregon?

The letter was traced back to Masanjia Labor Camp in China, from a man who was imprisoned there by the communist government of China for being a Falun Gong practitioner. Labeled a follower of the “evil cult” of Falun Gong, this man, who wishes to be called Mr. Zhang for anonymity, endured torture, sleepless nights, and regular beatings for two and a half years.

Mr.Zhang knew something had to be done about the injustices he and his fellow “prisoners” were experiencing. So he wrote. Twenty letters to be exact. All in secret and all hidden in products bound for English speaking countries with the hope that someone might find one. And someone did find a letter, and because of its discovery, a bright light has been shed on China’s “re-education through labor” camps. Using this recent experience and others like it, human rights activists from around the globe are inspiring change and pushing China to reform its oppressive actions, especially toward Falun Gong practitioners.

Freedom of religion is in the constitution of the Chinese Communist Party. But, in fine print, only “normal religious activity” as defined by government is sanctioned. Falun Gong does not fall under this “normal religious activity” category.  

In your opinion, what does freedom of religion really mean? Is re-education through labor a just punishment for those exercising their freedom of religion? Would you have the courage to write your own letter from a prison cell like Mr.Zhang? Next time you are at the store purchasing items, might you think twice about where and how your goods are produced?