In the final weeks of his life, Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo was granted a brief respite from the usual rigours of his 11-year prison sentence for “incitement to subvert state power.” His relocation to a prison ward in Shenyang brought him the company of his beloved wife Liu Xia, but left time for little else. Requests for permission to visit Germany or the United States for medical treatment were denied. He succumbed to the ravages of late-stage liver cancer, and died on July 13 shortly after experiencing organ failure.
China’s disgraceful treatment of Liu – who had been jailed for peaceful activism on three previous occasions – continued after his death. Official media described him as “led astray” by the West and spoke of his “tragic life” as a pawn of China’s foreign critics. An official statement warned other countries that they were “in no position to make improper remarks” about the handling of his case – a phrase that exemplifies the autocratic mindset that Liu denounced throughout his life so courageously. The eleventh principle of Charter 08 – the pro-democracy manifesto he helped to draft – calls for a press law that “abolishes political restrictions on the press.” The idea is then restated, more poetically: “We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.”
It is easy to see why Liu enraged Beijing’s bureaucrats. Widely and deeply read, unafraid to speak his mind, he never shied away from full-throated criticism of the yes-men around him. His sharp pen produced literary and cultural commentary that was re-readable, as much for its chutzpah as for its insights. He swept aside Beijing’s cultural gatekeepers as men who “look for support, for security, so they can sleep easy; lunging into the bosom of some grand authority or other, and doz[ing] off in their warm embrace.” On another occasion he told an interviewer that “Whenever the Chinese start heaping scorn on authoritarianism, they should be blaming themselves instead. How could things have reached their present state, where the most outrageous things are taken for granted, if it weren’t for the Chinese being so weak-willed and ignorant? Tyranny is not terrifying; what is really scary is submission, silence, and even praise for tyranny.”
Liu’s extreme candour and his equally determined individualism made him a leading voice for the Tiananmen protesters. The experience showed him the profound yearning for political freedom among his contemporaries, but he was chastened by the ruthless manner in which the movement was silenced. Although he stood on the frontline throughout the protests and was subsequently jailed for his involvement, he was plagued by guilt for his decision to accept temporary shelter at the house of a foreign diplomat during the most violent phase of the reprisals. A devotion to the memory of the ordinary people who lost their lives that day informed his subsequent activism. When his wife brought him news of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize he told her: “This is for the aggrieved ghosts.”
Liu’s fearlessness was tempered by an under-appreciated moderation. While redrafting Charter 08, he softened its language to avoid needless confrontation with the authorities, but his tact never shaded into timidity. The Charter’s preamble calls China’s political system the cause of “human rights disasters and social crises” and unequivocally states that “[t]he democratization of Chinese politics can be put off no longer.” In a better world, the anxious men who punish any hint of dissent in the People’s Republic would have found a way to engage with the Charter, and its authors, instead they feared the advent of a “Colour Revolution” like those which had toppled other authoritarian regimes, and chose instead to persecute and imprison its most reasonable leader.
Liu’s Nobel citation lauded his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” It is a struggle that will not end with his death. The Sinologist Perry Link ends a moving obituary for Liu in the New York Review of Books by comparing him with Chinese premier Xi Jinping. Separated by only two years, both men grew up during the Cultural Revolution, Liu using the closure of schools to read his way into intellectual independence, Xi carefully “building a resume that would allow him, riding the coattails of his elite-Communist father, to one day vie for supreme power.” Both rose to the top of their fields – literature, politics – one through relentless erudition and self-examination, the other by mastering the “skullduggery and sycophancy” of China’s closed political system. One valued “power and position”, the other “moral worth.” As things stand, Xi appears to have “won” and Liu to have “lost.” But imagine the future, two hundred years from now. Link asks us to consider: “who will recall the names of the tyrants who sent Mandela, Havel, and [Aung San] Suu Kyi to jail? Will the glint of Liu Xiaobo’s incisive intellect be remembered, or the cardboard mediocrity of Xi’s?”