It is remarkable and revealing that China, a country that threatens to upend the balance of power in Asia, is frightened by one man. There is no other explanation for why the government in Beijing, steward of the world’s second-largest economy, possessor of one of the world’s largest militaries with a formidable nuclear arsenal, would bring the full might of its authority and power down on Liu Xiaobo, a democracy activist and human rights campaigner. Liu died last week, under prison guard, from liver cancer. His death has galvanized international opinion and reminded that world that for all its confidence and muscle flexing, the Chinese Communist Party remains fundamentally weak, threatened by ideas and morally insecure.
Liu was a student of literature and literary theory, who received his Ph.D. from, and taught at, Beijing Normal University. Overseas when the Tiananmen uprising began in 1989, he rushed home to join the protests and played a key role in securing safe passage from the square for many demonstrators before the military crackdown, saving hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives.
He was arrested shortly after, expelled from Beijing Normal University and, 19 months later, convicted of “counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement,” but spared imprisonment. He continued to call for redress for the victims of Tiananmen, a stance that prompted the government to sentence him in 1996 to three years of “re-education through labor” for “disturbing public order.”
His greatest crime, in the eyes of the Chinese government, was yet to come. It was authorship, along with more than 300 others, of Charter 08, a clarion call for human rights and democracy in China, released to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and which drew on the Czechoslovakian manifesto, Charter 77. While the document garnered more than 10,000 signatures, Liu was the only person arrested, charged and convicted by the Chinese government for involvement; his supposed crime was “inciting subversion of state power.”
Liu’s courage and conviction won him the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, an award that earned the Nobel Committee and the government of Norway, which the Chinese government deemed complicit in a decision to embarrass Beijing, enmity that endures to this day. China would not let Liu attend the award ceremony and pressed countries with embassies in Norway to stay away; 15 did. The ceremony marked Liu’s detention with an empty chair, a symbol of repression that was more compelling and powerful than any speech he might have delivered.
Three weeks ago, it was reported that Liu had been given medical parole after it was discovered that he had terminal liver cancer. Yet even in his final weeks, he was denied the opportunity to travel abroad for medical treatment and there are questions about whether he was given adequate care while in prison. Liu died on July 13, his remains cremated and his wife, Liu Xia, isolated so that she could “mourn in peace.”
Governments and human rights organizations worldwide showered praise on Liu and offered condolences to his family. The Norwegian Nobel Committee blamed the Beijing government for Liu’s death and Chairwoman Berit Reis-Andersen said that Liu will remain “a powerful symbol for all who fight for freedom, democracy and a better world.” The United Nations High Commission for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein added that “The human rights movement in China and across the world has lost a principled champion who devoted his life to defending and promoting human rights, peacefully and consistently, and who was jailed for standing up for his beliefs. Liu Xiaobo was the true embodiment of the democratic, non-violent ideals he so ardently advocated.”
China professes to not care. Instead, it railed against those who, it said, sought to interfere in its domestic affairs and continued to denounce Liu as someone who rejected the mainstream of Chinese society and opinion. Yet for all its fiery rhetoric, Chinese actions speak louder than its words. Its attempt to isolate, silence and erase Liu from the public discourse — censors delete any mention of his name on social media along with any image that might be associated with him, such as that of a burning candle, and block internet searches of his name and quotes associated with him. As is often the case with dissidents, Liu was again accused of “being misled by the West,” as if he was unable to reason for himself about what is best for his country.
The world must not forget Liu Xiaobo. We should remember that only two Nobel Peace Prize winners have died in captivity: Liu and Carl von Ossietzky, a German pacifist who died of maltreatment in 1938 in a Nazi prison. A campaign should be mounted to allow his wife to leave China. That is one step to honor Liu’s memory, his struggle and his courage.