Liu Xiaobo (1955–2017)

Issue Date October 2017
Volume 28
Issue 4
Page Numbers 185-90
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On July 13, imprisoned Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo died of liver cancer, after long being denied appropriate medical treatment. A well-known essayist and poet, he was arrested just after the Tiananmen Square massacre for his support of the protesters. After spending a year and a half in prison, he continued his work as an underground writer, only to be imprisoned again in 1995. Barely a half-year after his release, he was arrested once more for his writings and sentenced to three years in a labor camp, from which he emerged in 1999. During the 2000s he resumed his writing career, was elected to serve as chair of the writers’ group Independent Chinese PEN Center, and took on the editorship of the online journal Democratic China.

In 2008, Liu played a leading role in drafting and recruiting signatories for Charter 08, a manifesto for democracy and human rights in China modeled on Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77. Detained by police in December 2008, he was formally arrested on 23 June 2009 on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” and in December of that year was tried and sentenced to eleven years in prison. In 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, but was unable to leave prison to receive the award. At the award ceremony in Oslo, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee famously placed the medal and citation on an empty chair.

On September 7, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) organized a memorial symposium in Washington, D.C., honoring Liu’s life and legacy. The event, which began with brief opening remarks by NED Board Chairman Judy Shelton, was moderated by NED President Carl Gershman. The panelists, all of whom had been involved in some way with Liu and his work, were Louisa Greve, a vice-president at NED; noted China scholar Perry Link of the University of California, Riverside; Xiao Qiang, editor-in-chief of China Digital Times; scholar and human-rights activist Xiaorong Li; and Andrew Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. Below we present brief excerpts from their remarks, based on some informal written texts and on transcriptions of the oral presentations. In some places these have been lightly edited. But we urge readers who wish to get a fuller sense of the eloquence of the speakers and the atmosphere of the event to view the video at [End Page 185]

Judy Shelton:

We chose to call this event, which is devoted to the legacy of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, a memorial symposium. And yes, it’s a memorial, a solemn reflection and deep tribute to a man who was denied proper medical treatment and who died while held captive under authoritarian control. We could express our sadness, and even our anger about that. But through this symposium, we are channeling our shared feelings into a level of engagement with the forces of repression that Liu Xiaobo would approve. We are taking heart by thinking through his words and his deeds. . . . Together, we draw strength and inspiration to embrace the freedoms boldly championed by Liu Xiaobo, a man who before his sentencing in 2009 stood before the court and declared, “To block freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, to strangle humanity, and to suppress the truth.”

Carl Gershman:

Liu Xiaobo’s contribution to democracy was monumental, and his analysis of Chinese politics and society—and his warnings about the danger to the world of a rising and dictatorial China—remain profoundly relevant today. We couldn’t share Liu Xiaobo’s suffering, but we can try to understand his ideas, appreciate his example, and find inspiration in his vision of a different China.

Louisa Greve:

“The struggle of man against power,” Milan Kundera has said, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” We are here today to remember Liu Xiaobo and understand his legacy. This is a profoundly important and significant contribution to this struggle of memory against forgetting.

For over four millennia, each new Chinese dynasty rewrote the history of the last. George Orwell wrote in 1944, “The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits ‘atrocities’ but that it attacks the concept of objective truth: it claims to control the past as well as the future.” Orwell, however, ends his essay with the brave hope that “the liberal habit of mind, which thinks of truth as something outside yourself, something to be discovered, and not as something you can make up as you go along, will survive.”

Long after the last dynasty in China, and after the end of the twentieth-century totalitarianism analyzed by Kundera and Orwell, Liu Xiaobo’s empty chair at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo in 2010 reflects the authoritarian power that is exercised over history and remembrance by the China of our time. . . . Liu Xiaobo sought to remember the whole truth about the China that the Communist Party so proudly claimed to have built. . . . He steadfastly refused to participate in the Party’s version of history and reality. . . .

He recognized that direct communication from activists to followers is not worth much without what we call intermediating institutions. He was not only a critic and intellectual. He was not only a voice of conscience. He was not only a man of exceptional moral courage. He created a true legacy [End Page 186] of flesh and blood human beings, people inspired by him, but also shaped and molded by the aspirations he articulated, and, just as importantly, the experience of working together to build ideas, build institutions, and work on practical problems. . . .

So, Liu Xiaobo was a thinker, and a writer, and an activist. He excelled at all of these vocations; and like no one else, he made them into an exceptional life of service, shaping what we might call a program for democracy.

Perry Link:

Liu’s role in the Tiananmen Square protests of spring 1989 is often, but wrongly, seen as a pinnacle of his courage and influence. It is true that this is where he first articulated his philosophy of “no hatred” and where he put it into practice by inducing student protesters to leave the square while two of his friends negotiated with the Chinese military temporarily to hold their fire. This wise and courageous action likely saved more than a thousand lives.

In fact, though, Liu had become frustrated with the protesters, whom he found to display authoritarian behavior patterns themselves and who did not much warm to his counsel of pacifism and tolerance. After the June Fourth massacre he blamed himself for taking temporary refuge with a foreign friend in the diplomatic quarter while many other people—mostly workers, not students—remained in danger on the streets, trying to help others. For the rest of his life he felt ashamed of himself for fleeing to safety and haunted by the “lost souls” of people who died that night. . . .

Liu Xiaobo’s essays between 1999, when he left the labor camp, and 2008, when he entered prison for the third and final time, show his mature thought and are the heart of his intellectual legacy. He produced this writing under the constant strain of police surveillance and harassment. Police cars parked at his door regularly. Any essay he published on the internet or in an overseas magazine was held against him—and he knew it would be—but he kept writing anyway. Most remarkably, he continually maintained his political activism as well as his writing. He often left home to encourage and aid groups who were protesting, to visit the Tiananmen Mothers, or to promote petitions and open letters including, in his last fateful effort, Charter 08. During the same years most other dissident intellectuals chose to go abroad or, if they stayed in China, to write quietly at home, keeping a distance from the dangers of taking action. Liu Xiaobo went ahead with both writing and activism as if the immense pressures in the environment simply were not there. This characteristic was unique among his peers; it is what people meant by “iron” in calling him the “iron man of democracy.”

. . . Liu Xiaobo’s life is a story of how a person can grow up with conflicts—both inner conflicts and conflicts with the environment—and gradually, through conscientious recognition of one’s flaws and weaknesses, train oneself to overcome them and to become the kind of person one hopes to be.

Liu’s mature ideas, as shown in Charter 08 and elsewhere, opened a third new alternative for modern China—one that transcends the standard [End Page 187] dichotomy between “moderate” and “conservative” wings of the Chinese Communist Party, which for nearly seventy years had been the only alternatives the Chinese people had been able to regard as possible. Liu began his trail-blazing in the 1980s with the celebration of individual autonomy. Then he extended it to show, and to campaign for, ways in which society, too, could be free and autonomous.

He opposed narrow nationalism and sought to warn the world of its dangers, especially as the Communist Party of China was exploiting it to build its own power. Inside China, he favored genuine political autonomy and freedom of faith for Tibetans and other national minorities.

For the “dissident” movement inside and outside China, Liu was the north star of integrity that showed how a person can stand on principle, continue to be active even under intense repression, and not bend.

Xiao Qiang:

I have worked with dissidents, democracy activists, advocates, all of these heroes in my life. And lots of them are very egoistic. But Liu Xiaobo was the only one who became humble, who went through that kind of transition. I always asked, What made him change? What made him humble? What transformed him? What made him transform from an egoistic, flawed human being to not only a democratic activist, not a writer, but someone with a conscience, a humbleness and spiritual inspiration?

This is all before 2000. I thought, maybe it was love, because his poetry from [his wife] Liu Xia means a lot. And I asked other people. Some who knew him said that in prison, in the labor camp, he read a lot, he read Dostoyevsky. And others said that it’s June Fourth, it’s Tiananmen, it’s people’s lives that made him humble and transformed him. It’s only something like that, which has that kind of spiritual transformative power, that can make an individual rise above himself to something greater.

And Liu Xiaobo became someone greater, even greater than many others in the same movement. . . . He was more than a hero—you know, he was not religious, I am not religious—I don’t know what to say, a saint, he had a spiritual inspiration. . . . The spirit of Liu Xiaobo is more than a symbol of an activist, a writer, or even a poet. He has this reach, this spiritual guidance, which is needed for China in the coming years for its own transformation. . . .

I’m going to read from a short piece that I wrote for CNN [on July 14], shortly after Liu Xiaobo died:

Someday, Liu’s name will grace a national monument of a democratic China, for transcending fear with love in advance of human dignity. One day, when nations become obsolete concepts and “national monuments” disappear from the earth, the name Liu Xiaobo, together with those of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, will still be as bright as the brightest stars in the night sky, inspiring the ever-enduring enterprises of human freedom and dignity. Meanwhile, the names of those who imprisoned him and hastened his death, together with the name of their brutal, and brief, [End Page 188] authoritarian regime, will be a mere footnote under Liu Xiaobo’s page in the history books.

Xiaorong Li:

Twenty years before his last imprisonment, the Chinese government had banned Liu Xiaobo’s writings from being printed or circulated on the internet in China. But why, then, do the leaders of that government, which has since become a superpower, remain so terrified of him, such that they are not satisfied with having him silenced, that they want to obliterate him, even leave no trace of him?

Awarding Liu Xiaobo the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize has conferred on him the stature of the “moral giant” that he had lamented China didn’t have. . . . When a seasoned China scholar heard the breaking news in Beijing of that year’s Nobel Peace Prize going to Liu Xiaobo, he broke down sobbing. A friend asked, Why? Shouldn’t you smile in celebration? The scholar replied: At that moment, I knew Liu Xiaobo would never walk out of jail alive.

It’s clear that it was the activist Liu Xiaobo, in addition to the writer and poet Liu Xiaobo, the peaceful actions he took in sowing the seeds for democratic change, that terrified China’s authoritarian leaders. . . .

Charter 08 called for respect for “basic universal values,” including freedom, human rights, equality, democracy and constitutional rule. By then, more than 300 Chinese activists, lawyers and liberal intellectuals had added their signatures to endorse it. Liu Xiaobo worked tirelessly to collect signatures by email, Skype, or playing badminton, or at dinner parties.

Worried about the serious risks, I suggested delaying the release of the document. “What’s the worry?” He disagreed. “The worst for me is going back to jail. But it’s worth it: It’s nearly twenty years since Tiananmen, but there’s been no justice. I’ll do anything.” He was ready.

It is the vision that Liu Xiaobo and his friends drew up in Charter 08, it’s the peaceful actions to bring it about, the actions that he advocated, that he sought to support, the actions that could improve the lives and expand freedom to individuals living under the repressive regime—it’s that strategically nonviolent and potentially popular approach that had terrified the Chinese authoritarian leaders and brought their wrath upon Liu Xiaobo.

These leaders should be afraid. This approach, as Liu Xiaobo envisioned it—“transcending fear” with love and fighting for freedom peacefully “with optimism”—continues to inspire new generations of democracy and human rights activists today. It lives on in the rights lawyers’ stubborn insistence on their clients’ legal rights, or in the New Citizens’ Movement’s demand that top officials disclose their personal income, or in the petitioners’ determination to band together to lodge grievances and seek justice, hold the government accountable for its own promises made in the country’s constitution or in the international human rights treaties it has ratified.

Many more Chinese today than in 1989 or 2008 are taking piecemeal and peaceful actions to defend human rights, build the foundation for democracy [End Page 189] and rule of law. . . . The projects that Liu Xiaobo helped usher into existence have since grown and produced fruits. . . .

The Chinese government’s suppression of such efforts at challenging its authoritarian rule and fighting human rights abuses will be likely to intensify in the coming months [and] years. Those of us committed to democracy and human rights must keep up and strengthen our support for such grass-roots peaceful activism that has persevered inside the country, making real differences over time. That is where the hope lives. That is really the best we can do to keep our memory of Liu Xiaobo alive.

Andrew Nathan:

I want to reflect on what the regime’s treatment of Liu Xiaobo tells us about the regime itself. The way they treated him at the end was gratuitously cruel. They denied him treatment for liver cancer until it was too late, then put on a propaganda show of providing palliative treatment and invaded his and his wife’s privacy to circulate videos of their last moments together. After Liu died, the regime “disappeared” his widow, Liu Xia, who at this time is still not free. These were just the final acts in a long series of cruelties. . . .

This is the central paradox of the Chinese regime. It really is strong, in my opinion. It is hard to know for sure, but the elite appears authentically unified around Xi Jinping, economic growth is sustainable, popular support is real, and the many problems that exist are being skillfully managed. Yet the regime remembers Tiananmen, the collapse of the Soviet Union, riots in Tibet and Xinjiang, the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, and the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan. It draws the lesson that its political support is fragile.

For a regime like this, I believe such a judgment is correct. By choice and design, this is a structurally isolated regime. The ruling, Leninist vanguard party, the Chinese Communist Party, consists of about 6 percent of the population. The reason it is a vanguard party is that it doesn’t trust those whom it calls “the masses.” It doesn’t trust them to vote. It doesn’t trust them to write. It doesn’t trust them to think. It doesn’t trust professors to analyze politics, students to figure out for themselves what they think, journalists to report on official wrongdoing, or judges to decide political cases.

Who then can supervise the party? The party’s answer is, “the party can supervise itself.” But the party doesn’t really trust even itself, because it suspects so many of its own members of misdoings—corruption, ambition, opportunism, even abuse of power—despite their constant training in “right thinking” and “wrong thinking.”

We must admit that in recent years the performance of the Chinese system has been impressive, and the performance of Western democratic systems has been poor. But the grotesque abuse of Liu Xiaobo, and of so many other people less well known than Liu, throws a laser light on the core weakness of the Chinese type of system. Liu Xiaobo famously said that he had no enemies. But the vanguard authoritarian regime, by its nature, has many. [End Page 190]


Copyright © 2017 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press