Liu Xiaobo, 1955–2017

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It is with deep regret that the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation marks the death of Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiaobo.

Throughout his life, Liu Xiaobo was many things: a professor, a critic of literature, an author, an activist, a husband, a poet, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a prisoner, and a tireless advocate for the freedom of the Chinese people.

Liu Xiaobo was born in the city of Changchun in 1955. Like so many young Chinese of his generation, Liu was “sent down to the countryside” by Chinese dictator Mao Zedong in the wake of the so-called Cultural Revolution. This “revolution” unleashed such an orgy of violence throughout China that, in order to stop it, Mao resorted to exiling China’s young urban population to rural areas for agricultural labor. Liu later described this internal exile as the seedbed for his literary and political development: his isolation allowed him to experience childhood far from the suffocating grip of Maoist indoctrination.

In 1976, Mao died, and an exhausted China tried to move beyond the Maoist nightmare. When Chinese universities were reopened, Liu enrolled. He quickly immersed himself in poetry and writing and earned a master’s degree in literature. By 1984, he had become a teacher and a well-known writer. His work was poignant and insightful—and clashed with the offical drive for intellectual conformity under Deng Xiaoping.

While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had abandoned the mad violence and lust for total revolution that had been embraced by Mao, it refused to relinquish a jot of political power. By the late 1980s, large portions of Chinese society, especially the youth, were drawing the same critical conclusions as Liu had. In 1989, Liu Xiaobo returned from a teaching appointment in New York to join thousands of other students and young people in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to demand that the CCP liberalize and reform its policies.

To underscore their dedication to the cause, Liu and three others (later known as the four junzi, or “noble ones,” in an allusion to Chinese literary heroes—the regime would term them “black hands”) embarked on a hunger strike. When it became clear to hardliners in the regime that the unarmed students would not disperse or relent, they ordered a military assault. Soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army fired into the crowd with small arms and tank cannons. Many activists reacted at first with disbelief, refusing to accept that their own country’s army would turn on them. Some activists stood in between their fellow students and the army, insisting that the military was only firing rubber bullets until they saw others shot dead beside them.

Liu was instrumental in buying time for many protestors to flee by negotiating with the army. He himself would escape to the diplomatic quarter of Beijing. For the rest of his life, he felt a deep sense of guilt that other protestors—even passersby—were gunned down, while he survived. The specter of Tiananmen haunts his later poetry. “[It] is an annual return to the same event, over and over again,” wrote Jeffrey Yang, who translated Liu’s June Fourth Elegies into English. “As the years pass, the emotional content is still very much alive.”

Though Liu escaped death at Tiananmen, the long arm of the communist state soon snatched him up once more. But his imprisonment for “counterrevolutionary behavior” did not dampen his critical energies. After his release, he began again to chronicle the ills of the “New China.” Particularly poignant were his calls for the remembrance of the 1989 massacre—echoing loudly in the canyon of silence enforced by the regime one author calls the “People’s Republic of Amnesia.” The regime arrested Liu once more in 1996 and sent him to a labor camp.

During this imprisonment, Liu married his second wife, Liu Xia. “I found all the beauty in the world in this one woman,” he later said. Many of his poems are addressed to Liu Xia. “[The poems] span a variety of topics—massacre victims, Immanuel Kant, Vincent Van Gogh—that the poet addresses with Liu Xia standing beside him, as it were, as his spiritual companion,” writes scholar Perry Link. Liu Xiaobo was reunited with Liu Xia upon his release from the labor camp in 1999.

In the early 2000s, Liu lead the Independent Chinese PEN Center, a journalistic nonprofit dedicated to shining a light on the intensive repression of free speech in China and a constituent organization of PEN International. Then, in 2008, Liu Xiaobo joined an activist campaign that would determine the course of his life: Charter 08.

Charter 08 was a petition modeled after Charter 77, the 1977 Czechoslovak dissident manifesto that called on that country’s communist regime to observe the human rights principles that it had agreed to in the Helsinki Final Act. Charter 08 too was a clear-sighted call for basic human rights and freedoms. “Freedom is at the core of universal values,” it stated. “The rights of speech, publication, belief, assembly, association, movement, to strike, and to march and demonstrate are all the concrete expressions of freedom. Where freedom does not flourish, there is no modern civilization to speak of.” The petition also demanded the basic building blocks of free government: republican governance, legislative democracy, and the separation of powers. It was signed by nearly 350 Chinese luminaries—and endorsed by more than 10,000 other Chinese people.

The regime acted with its usual alacrity in suppressing all knowledge or discussion of the Charter. Foreign broadcasts reporting on the Charter movement were jammed; online discussions were shut down. And Liu Xiaobo, once again, was arrested. The warrant presented to him read, “Suspected of the crime of _________.”

In due course, Liu was charged with “subverting state power.” Six of his essays were adduced as evidence (including one essay that exposed a child slavery ring that had operated, with government collusion, in the “black kilns” in Shanxi province). On October 25, 2009, Liu was convicted and sentenced to eleven years in prison.

If the regime had hoped that the world would forget about Liu during his incarceration, they were gravely mistaken.

Almost a year to the day after Liu’s sentencing, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced its decision to award him the Nobel Peace Prize for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” The communist regime immediately announced that neither Liu nor any representative would be allowed to leave China to accept the award on his behalf. Liu Xia was placed under house arrest and held incommunicado. In a haunting indictment of the Chinese regime, the Nobel Committee went forward with the award ceremony regardless and presented the Peace Prize to an empty chair. (The phrase “empty chair” was instantly banned from China’s Internet.)

While news about Liu Xiaobo or statements from Liu Xia would occasionally slip out of China and into the international press, the regime stubbornly weathered the global criticism of its incarceration of a Nobel laureate until June of this year. On June 26, Liu Xiaobo was granted “medical parole” after being diagnosed with late-stage fatal liver cancer. On July 12, it was announced that he was suffering from “multiple organ dysfunction syndrome.” On July 13, Liu Xiaobo died.

Though it was cancer that ravaged his body, his cause of death is clear: during his period of incarceration, he suffered from hepatitis, sepsis, and a liver tumor. Had he been released upon diagnosis, Liu might well have been able to recover—especially if he had been granted permission to go abroad. He was only granted medical parole, however, when his cancer was known to be fatal, mere weeks before his death. (North Korea’s treatment of the kidnapped American student Otto Warmbier followed the same pattern.) Liu Xiaobo’s demise was medical murder by the Chinese communist regime.

Liu Xiaobo was an intellectual and moral giant, not just for the Chinese nation but for all of humanity. His poetry overflows with beauty. His political criticisms are as incisive as they are insightful. His commitment to nonviolent democracy went to his core. Liu’s indomitable character is summed up in the statement he read at his trial: “I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who have monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentence me, are my enemies… For hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation’s spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy. I hope therefore to be able to transcend my personal vicissitudes in understanding the development of the state and changes in society, to counter the hostility of the regime with the best of intentions, and defuse hate with love.”

His eulogy is, in part, a eulogy for freedom in China. The Chinese people and all the people of the world have lost a hero.