Dissident Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo dies – his legacy lives


Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, a prominent dissident since the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, has died after being denied permission to leave the country for treatment for late-stage liver cancer, Reuters reports:

Liu, 61, was jailed for 11 years in 2009 for “inciting subversion of state power” after he helped write a petition known as “Charter 08” calling for sweeping political reforms. Mourning his death, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Liu a “courageous fighter for civil rights and freedom of expression”, while the French and U.S. governments called on China to allow Liu’s family to move around freely.

Liu’s death, which triggered an outpouring of grief and condemnation over China’s treatment of him and his wife, is a devastating loss for the country’s democrats and for peaceful advocates of gradual reform, the National Endowment for Democracy said today.

“Liu’s passing robs China’s pro-democracy movement of its most consistent and eloquent voice,” said Carl Gershman, NED’s president. “He possessed a moral authority that his persecutors can only envy. The Chinese government’s refusal to allow Liu to travel abroad for medical care exposed the regime’s callous disregard for the most elemental humanitarian standards.”

“We extend our profound sympathies to Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, herself a model of courage and integrity. And we express our solidarity with China’s democratic voices who will maintain and honor Liu’s commitment to peaceful democratic reform.”

Liu was the co-recipient in abstentia of the NED’s 2014 Democracy Award (right). The Washington-based democracy assistance group had already “deplored the unconscionable medical neglect” he and his wife, Liu Xia, have suffered since his imprisonment in 2009.

“He was locked up four times, but he never stopped using his story to combat totalitarianism,” said Cui Weiping, a film critic and friend of Liu.

Liu’s passing, from liver cancer, while guarded by state security agents, is the first time a Nobel laureate died in custody since 1938 when pacifist Carl von Ossietzky succumbed to tuberculosis while incarcerated in a hospital in Nazi Germany.

China Digital Times

Family friend and fellow dissident Hu Jia (left) said the authorities would not let Liu die in peace.

“To some extent, this was an attempt by the Party to show their strength, to show that they control your life if you live in China,” he told Reuters. “But I think the historic message they are leaving is very different. By letting a Nobel peace prize winner die in custody they lost a chance to show humanity and instead proved their cold-blooded nature.”

U.S.-based dissident Yang Jianli (right) told RFA that while many were expecting the news at any time in China’s overseas dissident community, that hadn’t lessened their grief.

“We were in extreme pain and grief when the news came out, even though we knew Liu Xiaobo didn’t have long,” he added. “We had continued to press for him to be allowed to die in freedom in spite of this, but we didn’t succeed, and we are full of regret over that.”

“The regime couldn’t even honor the wishes of Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia in allowing them the freedom to be alone together,” said Yang, head of Initiatives for China.

Liu Xiaobo has been compared to Nelson Mandela, Václav Havel, and Aung San Suu Kyi, each of whom accepted prison as the price for pursuing more humane governance in their homelands, notes Perry Link, a China scholar at the University of California Riverside. But Mandela, Havel, and Suu Kyi all lived to see release from the beastly regimes that repressed them, and Liu Xiaobo did not. Does this mean his place in history will fall short of theirs? Is success of a movement necessary in order for its leader to be viewed as heroic? he asks, writing for The New York Review of Books.

China’s refusal to allow Liu to seek medical attention abroad is a reflection of the party’s fear of showing weakness “either at home or abroad,” said Andrew Nathan, an expert on Chinese history and politics at Columbia University. Any sign of giving way “would only encourage domestic enemies and foreign critics,” said Nathan, a NED board member.

Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia (L) and Former top Communist Party official Bao Tong (R), in recent photos. Credit: RFA

“The Chinese Government bears a heavy responsibility for his premature death,” the Nobel Committee said. But the free world is also guilty of ignoring his case, said Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee

“It is a sad and disturbing fact that the representatives of the free world, who themselves hold democracy and human rights in high regard, are less willing to stand up for those rights for the benefit of others,” she said in a statement. “Liu Xiaobo was a representative of ideas that resonate with millions of people all over the world, even in China. These ideas cannot be imprisoned and will never die.”

Human Rights House

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said “Mr Liu dedicated his life to the betterment of his country and humankind, and to the pursuit of justice and liberty,” and called on China to release Liu Xia (right) from house arrest.

Dared to dream

Liu had “dared to dream of a China that respected human rights,” said former US president George W. Bush. “For that, he spent much of his life as a political prisoner of conscience.  But he never wavered in his quest to advance freedom and democracy.” “The widow and family he loved dearly have paid a great price for Liu Xiaobo’s courage,” he said. ‘Laura and I send them our deepest condolences and join them in mourning the passing of this brave and principled soul.”

Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen (left) said she hoped China could now show self-confidence and promote political reform following Liu’s death.

“Only through democracy, in which every Chinese person has freedom and respect, can China truly become a proud and important country,” she said.

Other commentators mixed mourning with defiance.

“Despite the tragedy that Liu’s freedom has come from his death, it is clear today that the Chinese government has lost,” said Liu’s international counsel Jared Genser. “Liu’s ideas and his dreams will persist, spread, and will, one day, come to fruition. And his courage and his sacrifice for his country will inspire millions of Chinese activists and dissidents to persevere until China has become the multi-party democracy that Liu knew to his core was within its people’s grasp.”

No illusions

“Liu will be remembered as a symbol of democracy and will be mourned by liberals everywhere,” said Qiao Mu (left), a Beijing intellectual and critic of China’s ruling Communist party. “He was a symbol for all those who seek to confront authoritarianism with peace,” he told the Financial Times.

Liu Xiaobo never harbored the illusion that nonviolent action would not be returned by violence, Xiaorong Li (right), a co-editor of “Charter 08,” writes for The New York Times:

Chinese lawyers who used the courts to challenge the state-controlled judiciary, attempting to hold the police accountable for using torture to extract confessions or keeping detainees in secret locations, have been detained or tortured themselves.

But Xiaobo didn’t let the repression cloud his unflappable optimism. His firm belief that freedom is “the source of humanity and the mother of truth” should continue to guide all of us.

“The Chinese government’s arrogance, cruelty, and callousness are shocking – but Liu’s struggle for a rights-respecting, democratic China will live on,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

Chinese liberals are already fighting the regime’s efforts to erase Liu from people’s memory, Reuters adds.

“Don’t underestimate the power of the internet,” said Albert Ho, who heads the Hong Kong Alliance. “And don’t underestimate the people. I have seen many episodes where suddenly the hero gets degraded into the devil and the devil becomes the hero,” he said, referring to previous shifts in China’s political system. “People are not living in an open society in China so you never know,” he said.

Liu’s illness elicited a deluge of sympathy from friends, Chinese rights activists and international groups, who saw him as a fearless advocate of peaceful democratic change, The Times adds.

China Digital Times

“The reaction to his illness shows how much he was respected,” said Cui Weiping (left), a former professor of literature in Beijing and democracy advocate. “People from all walks of life — friends, strangers, young people — have been outraged to hear that someone with terminal cancer was kept locked up till he died.”

“Through its repression, the Chinese party-state has made Liu a major historical figure,” said Steve Tsang, a Sinologist at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London.

Veteran Chinese activists said it was primarily his skill as an organizer that worried authorities, The Wall Street Journal’s Josh Chin reports:

He assisted parents whose children were killed in the June 4 crackdown in setting up a group, the Tiananmen Mothers, to press the government to own up to the killings. Later, he helped establish and run the Chinese branch of free-speech group PEN International. In 2008, Mr. Liu worked with a small group of activist writers and scholars to draft and promote Charter 08, which advocated free elections and separation of powers. The document was signed by more than 300 human-rights activists, journalists, lawyers, scholars and former Communist Party officials.


“It was the first time since 1989 that you had so many intellectuals united together and organized behind one initiative. That’s what scared the government,” said Yu Jie (right), an activist writer who helped draft the text.

“He was a dissident even among dissidents,” said Yu, a friend and biographer, who now lives in the United States. “Liu Xiaobo was willing to criticize himself and reflect on his actions in a way that even many activists in the democracy movement can’t.”

“He was known then as a rebel, the black horse of the literary scene,” says Link, a China scholar at Princeton who has translated Liu’s works into English. “And he took on just about everybody else, and made fun of them and debunked them.”

“Among the great nations of the world, China, alone, still clings to an authoritarian political way of life,” said the Charter. “As a result, it has caused an unbroken chain of human rights disasters and social crises, held back the development of the Chinese people, and hindered the progress of human civilization.”

“The charter was the first public document since 1949 to dare to mention the end of one-party rule,” said Link. “But of course the problem with having an influence is that the crackdown has been effective. A lot of young people don’t know about the charter and don’t know about Liu Xiaobo now.”

An alternate modern China

“When he helped write the charter and got the Nobel Prize, for the ones who knew about those events, I think it was the first time since the [1949 Communist] Revolution that the idea of an alternate modern China was at least thinkable,” he said.

Liu had come to accept that change would come slowly, Link told The LA Times.

“Even though the pall that Xi Jinping casts is pervasive and depressing, I don’t think anyone’s giving up,” he said. “I think it’s like asking a sick person to give up on life. The last thing you want to do is give up hope.”

Liu would be remembered as “a stubborn truth-teller” and someone who opened “the possibility of a different kind of China,” Link added.

“That is a lasting legacy. The model of how an independent intellectual stands up to the state will be admired if it is not completely obliterated.”

The renowned Chinese artist Ai Weiwei depicts the brutality of authoritarianism in a new work about political prisoners – including Liu – at the Hirshhorn gallery in Washington, D.C.

“Liu Xiaobo was not a criminal,” he told Reuters news agency. With Liu’s death, “China showed how brutal its society can be.”

Two of Liu’s most eloquent and incisive essays – “Can It Be That the Chinese People Deserve Only ‘Party-Led Democracy’?” and “Changing the Regime by Changing Society” – featured in the NED’s Journal of Democracy.

“I stand by the convictions I expressed in my ‘June Second Hunger Strike Declaration’ twenty years ago—I have no enemies and no hatred,” Liu said in a statement prepared for his 2009 trial. “None of the police who monitored, arrested, and interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who indicted me, and none of the judges who judged me are my enemies.”

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