On May 29 the National Endowment for Democracy commemorated the 25th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown with the presentation of its annual Democracy Award to two imprisoned human rights activists, Liu Xiaobo and Xu Zhiyong. The event was held on Capitol Hill and featured opening remarks by NED Chairman Martin Frost and Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski.
Assistant Secretary Malinowski underscored the timeliness of the Award. The drama of Tiananmen Square did not end on June 4, 1989, he said: “Many of the people who stood on that square that day asking only for the freedom to speak their minds and have a say are still harassed, others are still unaccounted for.”
The night’s honorees had to be honored in absentia because Dr. Liu and Dr. Xu are currently serving prison sentences in China for their activism.
“Since the regime in Beijing has chosen to silence their voices, we are here to make sure their voices are heard loud and clear,” Chairman Frost said.
Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar, has been at the forefront of campaigns for rights in China for the past decade. He co-founded the Open Constitution Initiative, an independent center bringing together rights lawyers, liberal intellectuals, journalists and citizen activists to work for rule of law in China. Dr. Xu’s landmark 2012 article, “China Needs a New Citizen’s Movement,” helped define and encourage hundreds of initiatives to help citizens assert their rights and demand accountability.
“For his intellectual integrity, for his courage, for his belief in a free and democratic China, the NED is proud to present its 2014 Democracy Award to Xu Zhiyong,” NED Board Member Dr. Andrew Nathan said.
Accepting the award on Dr. Xu’s behalf was Hua Ze, a friend of Dr. Xu as well as a documentary filmmaker and active supporter of the New Citizen’s Movement. Ms. Ze recounted both Dr. Xu’s great achievements and his burden of being haunted by consequences every step of the way: he was sentenced to four years in prison after a closed-door trial found him guilty of “gathering a crowd and disturbing public order.” Ms. Ze thanked NED, saying that she believed democracy and freedom in China requires “the hard work of countless Chinese people as well as the attention and support of the international community.”
Like his co-honoree, Liu Xiaobo is currently serving a prison sentence for his activism: 11 years for his critical writings and role in launching Charter 08, a declaration calling for political reforms and human rights published in 2008 that quickly garnered over 10,000 signatories throughout China.
NED President Carl Gershman led off the remarks honoring Dr. Liu, recognizing another noted Chinese activist, Chen Guangcheng, was in the audience that night. Mr. Gershman noted commonalities in the Chinese democracy activism community. “The common thread running through the writings of Liu Xiaobo and Xu Zhiyong is the idea of citizenship, taking responsibility for one’s life and for the well-being of society,” he said.
Accepting the award on behalf of Liu Xiaobo was House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi. She recalled the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, where Dr. Liu’s chair of honor remained notably empty because he was in prison. “It was a scene that went around the world,” she said. “We remember all those who left empty chairs because they stood up and spoke out against the abuses of the Chinese government.” Rep. Pelosi said she hoped for continued bipartisan calls for human rights reform in China.
NED also used the occasion to honor U.S. Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) with the Democracy Service Medal. Accepting the Medal, Rep. Wolf focused on the courage of Chinese activists like those honored alongside him, acknowledging he was moved to be in their company.
“In face of China’s draconian assault on basic human liberty, millions of Chinese people continue to long for and courageously act in pursuit of freedom and basic human dignity,” he said. “These impulses are captured by the simultaneously tragic and inspiring biographies of this evening’s democracy award recipients.”
Several members of Congress joined NED in paying tribute to Rep. Wolf. Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) applauded Rep. Wolf’s ability to cross party lines on crucial human rights issues. Rep. McGovern said it had been a privilege to serve with Rep. Wolf, describing him as “a man with a tender heart but a spine of steel.”
Rep. Wolf’s dedication to rising above the Washington political fray was a common theme among his Congressional supporters. Congressman Joe Pitts (R-PA) lauded Rep. Wolf’s willingness to take political risks.
“For a member of Congress it’s very tempting to focus on issues that get you votes and raise you money,” Rep. Pitts said. “But Frank and I both have the same weakness: some of the things we really care about raise us no money, get us no votes, and get us no kudos from the folks back home.”
Vin Weber, vice chairman of NED’s Board and a former Congressman from Minnesota, recounted a trip to Beijing made by Rep. Wolf following the 2008 NED Democracy Award. That year, the award honored a group of lawyers battling religious persecution in China, most of whom had to be honored in absentia. Rep. Wolf’s efforts to seek out the recipients and present their awards in person were denied by authorities, but the “message of encouragement and solidarity that they sent to their fellow activists could not have been clearer or more reassuring,” Weber said.
“Frank has devoted himself to a cause truly larger than himself,” Weber said. “He is an example of democracy at its best, of government at its best, of the United States of America at its best.”
As the night wound down, the shadow of the Tiananmen Square anniversary remained strong. Rep. Wolf’s final words noted that a consciousness had been awakened that day 25 years ago. And, while the flame has flickered, he said, it has persisted in the face of darkness because of the remarkable activists fighting for democracy and freedom in China.
“Against all odds they have continued to battle Goliath,” he said. “And we know –we know – how that story ends.”