The Death of a Dissident: ChinaFile on Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace laureate imprisoned for his opposition to authoritarian rule in China, has died from cancer at age 61. The Chinese government granted Liu medical parole after revealing his advanced cancer diagnosis last month but refused his request to travel abroad for treatment. Liu, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in a 2010 ceremony he was not permitted to attend, has become the second Nobel Peace laureate to die while in government custody after Carl von Ossietzky, a German opponent of Nazism, in 1938.

Liu had been one of China's most influential dissidents for decades. In 2008, he and over 300 fellow government critics published Charter 08, a petition calling for China to democratize and recognize individual rights. Published the same year that Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics, an event framed as a symbol of China's national resurgence, Charter 08 eventually gathered thousands of signatories and garnered widespread international attention. A year later, Liu was arrested and sentenced to 11 years in prison. His death occurred three years before his scheduled release.

ChinaFile, the publication of Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, has covered Liu Xiaobo extensively.

In this ongoing ChinaFile Conversation, contributers reflect on Liu's work, his treatment by the Chinese state, his death, and his legacy. Thomas Kellogg, executive director of Georgetown Law Asia, writes:

Much has been written about Liu Xiaobo’s own resoluteness, his own stubborn bravery in the face of repression. Most men would have given up after only a short spell in that Shenyang prison. They would have sent a signal to Beijing that they were ready to make a deal that would free them from the misery, from the intellectual death of a prison cell. One can only imagine how painful it must have been for a mind as brilliant and piercing as Liu Xiaobo’s to be denied regular access to reading materials, and even to pen and paper. (With his death, the world loses the chance to read Liu Xiaobo’s own blistering, sulfuric, and darkly eloquent firsthand account of his more than eight years in jail, which may be a key reason why Beijing refused to allow him to seek treatment outside of the country, even in his last days: they didn’t want even small shards of that story to get out.) His courage in standing up for his beliefs knew no bounds, and stands as a model for all of us in these cramped, politically shallow, and self-absorbed times.

In this excerpt from their book Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the 21st Century, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations Orville Schell and John Delury discussed Liu's impact on Charter 08:

For the party, December 2008 was supposed to mark a grand celebration of the spectacular success of 30 years of “reform and opening up” and of national rejuvenation. But for the drafters of Charter 08, China’s economic boom had only papered over the failure of political reform and a concomitant debasement of social values. “A hundred years have passed since the writing of China’s first constitution,” the Charter 08 document began. “We are approaching the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre of pro-democracy student protesters. The Chinese people, who have endured human rights disasters and uncountable struggles across these same years, now include many who see clearly that freedom, equality and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values. By departing from these values, the Chinese government’s approach to 'modernization’ has proven disastrous. It has stripped people of their rights, destroyed their dignity, and corrupted normal human intercourse.”

Warning that China’s “future hangs in the balance,” Charter 08 went on to declare, “For China the path that leads out of our current predicament is to divest ourselves of the authoritarian notion of reliance on an ‘enlightened overlord’ or an ‘honest official’ and to turn instead toward a system of liberties, democracy and the rule of law.” It concluded, “Unfortunately, we stand today as the only country among the major nations that remains mired in authoritarian politics. Our political system continues to produce human rights disasters and social crises, thereby not only constricting China’s own development, but limiting the progress of all human civilization ...The democratization of Chinese politics can be put off no longer.”

In its uncompromising directness, the language of Charter 08 was vintage Liu Xiaobo. “I think my open letter is quite mild,” he protested to The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos. “Western countries are asking the Chinese government to fulfill its promises to improve the human-rights situation, but if there’s no voice from inside the country, then the government will say, ‘It’s only a request from abroad; the domestic population doesn’t demand it.’ I want to show that it’s not only the hope of the international community, but also the hope of the Chinese people to improve their human-rights situation.”

In the end, it didn’t really matter how Liu explained his effort; the message of Charter 08 was simply too bold and too antithetical to the strategy for modernization that the party’s leadership had adopted.

In a piece originally published in Foreign Policy, the Beijing-based writer James Palmer examines why Liu was not an especially sympathetic figure in mainland China — even among cosmopolitan Chinese:

In Liu’s case, his past writings were dragged out to use against him. He’d written that it would take “300 years of colonialism” for China to become as civilized as Hong Kong, been an enthusiastic supporter of the U.S. war on terror, and sometimes been willfully blind about the West’s failings. That was dragged out as an excuse by many Chinese intellectuals — and some Western apologists. At no point did they explain how intemperate speech or naivety justified decades of persecution and imprisonment — it was enough to point the finger, to come up with an excuse, and to sleep comfortably at night.

One of the strangest ways that people talked about Liu and other dissidents like the ebullient Ai Weiwei, I found, was as though their actions were really some kind of cunning career move, made to get them attention or money from the West. Editorials in the state-operated Global Times described the democrats as “having made a failed bet.” In part, this was because of government propaganda that did everything it could to link internal dissent to the ever-present “foreign forces.”

But it was also a way of reducing everything to the same cynicism with which the rest of Chinese society operates. Pretend that taking on the system was done for Western gold, rather than principle, and you could justify the compromises and corruption that you took part in every day. It was especially prevalent among those who had been young and once idealistic in the 1980s. They’d compromised, so why the hell couldn’t those stiff-necked bastards? Everybody else — or at least, the people in their class: urban, educated professionals — had done so well in the years afterward, after all.

The Sinologist and writer Perry Link is editor of No Enemies, No Hatred, a translation of Liu Xiaobo's writing. In an article originally published in the New York Review of Books, Link describes the scene in Oslo, Norway, where Liu was represented by an empty chair during his Nobel ceremony:

But many of the Chinese supporters of Liu still felt that well-intentioned Westerners have a long way to go before they really understand China’s politics. The Norwegian hosts repeatedly expressed a hope, for example, that Liu Xiaobo will soon be allowed to come to Oslo to collect his prize. Exiled Chinese who heard this kind-hearted wish knew, but did not say, how unrealistic it was. Even if Liu Xiaobo were to be released from prison, it is unimaginable that he would agree to leave China. If he left, the regime could bar him from re-entry, as it has so many others, and his ability to influence life and ideas inside China would decline precipitously. Liu Xiaobo is smart enough not to let such a thing happen, so as long as the medal remains in Oslo, it is likely he will be separated from it for a long time. (His wife — who has been under effective house arrest and unable to communicate with anyone since a few days after the award was announced in early October — could in the future try to collect it, but she, too, would have to calculate the risk of forced exile.)

About the Author

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Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.