Liu Xiaobo, Nobel peace laureate imprisoned in China

The writer and critic saved thousands from the massacre in Tiananmen Square

Harrison Smith
Friday 14 July 2017 15:01
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Cancer-stricken Liu suffered breathing failure, amid anger over his treatment by the authorities
Cancer-stricken Liu suffered breathing failure, amid anger over his treatment by the authorities

In the days after the Chinese writer and dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on 8 October 2010, his country cut off trade talks with Norway, home of the Nobel committee, and placed his wife under house arrest.

In apparent protest at the award, a group of Chinese business and cultural leaders established an alternative to the Nobel, the Confucius Peace Prize, and later honoured such renegades as Vladimir Putin, Fidel Castro and Robert Mugabe.

Liu, who died yesterday aged 61, received the Nobel for what the committee called his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights”. It was that very struggle that also made him a marked man in China.

He was in the middle of an 11-year prison sentence when he won the Nobel. But foreign reports about the honour were blacked out in China, where authorities called the award a “desecration” of the prize. Text messages that included his name went un-received, stymied by state-run cellular networks, and the news was squelched online by the “Great Firewall”.

Liu spent much of the last three decades in forced confinement – at home, at labour camps or in prison. And his final months, after being diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer in May and granted medical parole, were marked by international calls for his release.

His death at a hospital in the northeastern city of Shenyang was confirmed by a statement from the Chinese government, which makes Liu the latest in a string of Chinese dissidents whose incarceration ended in serious illness or fatality.

A photograph posted on 5 July on Twitter by the dissident writer Ye Du showed an emaciated Liu at the hospital with his wife, Yu Xia, a photographer and poet who had pleaded for better medical care for Liu.

A pair of American and German doctors who were granted permission to treat Liu said on Sunday that he was strong enough to seek medical treatment abroad. Chinese officials resisted that claim, and rebuffed requests from Germany and the US State Department to allow him to leave the country.

Through it all, Liu’s plight remained largely invisible at home, where his writings were censored and he was labelled a mere criminal.

A bespectacled chain-smoker with a stutter, Liu established himself as a literary and political bomb-thrower in the mid-1980s, when Chinese society experienced a “cultural fever” under reform-minded Communist Party officials.

Liu (whose full name is pronounced lee-oh SHEEOW-bwoh) was “the enfant terrible of the late-Eighties intellectual scene in Beijing,“ says journalist Orville Schell, an acquaintance of Liu and a China scholar at the Asia Society in New York. “He was somebody who you invited to a party with some trepidation, because he was bound to offend someone.”

Confucius was “a mediocre talent,” Liu said; contemporary Chinese writers were even worse. The country’s “Marxism-Leninism,” he wrote in one article, was “not so much a belief system as a tool used by rulers to impose ideological dictatorship”.

Liu was a visiting scholar at Columbia University when, in April 1989, thousands of students began demonstrating in Tiananmen Square to demand democratic reforms. The assembly marked a turning point for Liu, who arrived at Tiananmen in May and began protesting alongside the movement’s young leaders.

When the chants began to die down and soldiers started trying to clear the square, Liu and three friends erected a tent alongside the 10-storey Monument to the People's Heroes, and began a 72-hour hunger strike.

“We are not in search of death; we are looking for real life,” the strikers declared in a statement. “We want to show that democracy practised by the people by peaceful means is strong and tenacious. We want to break the undemocratic order maintained by bayonets and by lies.”

Two nights later, military units launched a full-scale assault on the square, firing their rifles and driving armoured vehicles into crowds that lined the surrounding streets. Liu and his fellow hunger-strikers, fearing a bloodbath in the square, acted as negotiators between military forces and the remaining demonstrators. At dawn on 4 June, they successfully persuaded the students to leave.

Liu’s actions – at one point he grabbed a rifle from a demonstrator and smashed it on the ground, preventing what he saw as an excuse for the military to “gun everybody down” – were widely credited with saving thousands of lives. Still, several hundred civilians were killed in the attacks, details of which were suppressed by the Chinese government.

“Since the moment I walked out of the square, my heart has been heavy,” Liu said in The Gate of Heavenly Peace, a 1995 documentary that took its name from the English translation of Tiananmen. “I’ve never gotten over this.”

While biking on 6 June, during a government crackdown that led other prominent demonstrators to go into hiding, Liu was captured by Chinese officers. He was imprisoned for 21 months, branded a “black hand” and an “evil mastermind” and forbidden from publishing in China – a dictate that he subverted through pseudonyms and by penning articles for overseas publications.

Liu published more than 1,000 essays by his count, and called for reform rather than revolution. Yet he remained under state surveillance, and in 1996 was sentenced to three years of forced labour for drafting a declaration that called for reconciliation with Taiwan, freedom for Tibet and the impeachment of President Jiang Zemin.

Instead of then leaving the country, Liu chose to remain, a decision that “was the path of destruction” but that enabled him to remain an effective critic of the state, Schell says. His work culminated in Charter 08, a sweeping pro-democracy manifesto that landed him in prison for the last time.

Modelled in part on Charter 77 – the anti-Communist tract that Czech dissidents such as Vaclav Havel, a friend of Liu, had drafted decades earlier – the document drew unexpectedly wide-ranging support, receiving 10,000 signatures from farmers, lawyers, philosophers and street vendors until it was pulled off the internet by Chinese censors.

“It was the organisation [that concerned them],” Nicholas Bequelin, then an Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the Guardian in 2009. “It was across different social groups and across the country. That’s really one of the red lines for the party.”

Liu was captured by police shortly before the document’s release and confined to a windowless room north of Beijing. His final public statement was in court, days before he was found guilty of “inciting subversion of state power” on Christmas Day 2009.

“I firmly believe that China’s political progress will never stop, and I’m full of optimistic expectations of freedom coming to China in the future, because no force can block the human desire for freedom,” he said in the statement. Entitled “I Have No Enemies”, it was later read at his Nobel ceremony.

Liu was born in the north-eastern city of Changchun on 28 December 1955, and came of age during the worst years of the Cultural Revolution. In Mao Zedong’s bid to reassert his authority and revive revolutionary zeal, intellectuals and alleged dissidents were “re-educated” through forced labour, and millions of urban children were sent out of school and “down to the countryside”.

With his father, a professor of Chinese literature, Liu worked for a time in Inner Mongolia. He returned to Changchun and graduated from Jilin University in 1982, part of the first exiles’ cohort after Mao’s death in 1976. He received a master’s degree in Chinese literature from Beijing Normal University in 1984, and his doctorate there four years later.

Liu married his wife Xia at a labour camp in 1996, although their marriage was not officially recognised for another two years. In 2012, she told The Associated Press she was allowed to visit him in prison once a month, but was otherwise permitted to leave her apartment only to buy groceries and see her parents.

A previous marriage ended in divorce during Liu’s first prison sentence. In addition to his wife, survivors include son Tao from his first marriage.

Liu focused increasingly on his writing and poetry in later years, and from 2003 to 2007 served as president of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre. Some of his work was translated into English and published in the 2012 collections “No Enemies, No Hatred” and “June Fourth Elegies”.

The latter featured poems that Liu wrote each year in commemoration of the Tiananmen Square attacks. The writing, he said, was a means of bearing witness to a tragedy that had been excised from the country’s official histories.

He wrote in one poem:

The day
seems more and more distant,
and yet for me it
remains a needle inside my body
remains a crowd of mothers who've lost their children.

Liu Xiaobo, author and Nobel peace laureate, born 28 December 1955, died 13 July 2017

© Washington Post

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