18 May 2010

Where is Liu Xiaobo (and, more importantly, why)?

Edited 7 June 2010 to reflect the fact that Liu's province of birth is Jilin, not Liaoning. His hukou was transferred to Liaoning in the 1990s, reportedly after he and his first wife divorced.

We all remember that on Christmas Day last year, one of China's best known political dissidents, Liu Xiaobo, was convicted of inciting subversion and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Liu appealed that decision to the Beijing Municipality High People's Court, which upheld the lower court's verdict on 9 February of this year.

Under China's legal system, a defendant in a criminal trial has the right to appeal a decision only once, and the decision of the appellate court is final. Once that decision takes legal effect, we can normally expect commencement of the process of transfer from the detention center (run by the police) to a prison (managed by the local arm of the Ministry of Justice).

In Beijing, where Liu was convicted, this post-trial transfer process works a bit differently than in other parts of China, because special regulations in the capital restrict non-Beijing residents from serving their sentences in Beijing prisons. Convicted criminals whose place of household registration (hukou) is elsewhere are first held in a special "repatriation" detention center pending transfer to serve out the remainder of their sentences in their home provinces.

The verdict in Liu's case made clear that, despite having lived legally in Beijing for many years, his household registration remained in the province of his birth, Liaoning. (The fact that his status in Beijing could be considered "temporary"—an interpretation that, though not entirely convincing, has at least some basis in Chinese law—helps explain why Liu's initial six-month period of "residential surveillance" was not carried out in his home.) Under these circumstances, we should expect Liu to serve his sentence in a Liaoning prison.

But, as this Twitter post by the Chinese writer Yu Jie reminded us today, Liu Xiaobo remains in the Beijing Detention Center, where his wife and lawyers have reportedly been prevented from visiting him.This is highly unusual and, frankly, rather mysterious.

One would think the Chinese government wouldn't want to draw attention to Liu's situation by treating him differently for so long. Odd departures from expected and established practice invite all sorts of speculation—e.g., either Liu's being subjected to special punishment or a deal is in the works for some kind of early release. I don't happen to believe either of those scenarios are especially likely, but I must admit I'm hard-pressed to explain what's going on here.