Late last month, Chinese officials announced that the prominent writer, who had been detained since 2009, was being moved to a hospital to receive treatment for late-stage liver cancer. Despite the entreaties of his family, friends and foreign governments, Beijing refused to release him to seek care overseas. He died July 13, becoming only the second Nobel laureate to perish in custody (Carl von Ossietzky, an anti-Nazi pacifist, died in 1938).
In a move that sparked the ire of Chinese activists, authorities apparently ensured that his ashes were buried at sea and not on Chinese soil. Acclaimed artist Ai Weiwei, who lives in Germany, said the move was aimed at denying Liu’s supporters “a physical memorial site” and that it “showed brutal society can be.”
“It is a play,” said Ai. “Sad but real.”
Indeed, for China’s authoritarian leadership, what Liu represents is all too real. The poet and essayist was admired by many among the Chinese diaspora and the international community. “He fought for freedom and democracy for more than 30 years, becoming a monument to morality and justice and a source of inspiration,” Wen Kejian, a fellow writer, told my colleague Emily Rauhala.
“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,” said Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, in a statement.
Ironically Liu’s legacy and oeuvre are more visible abroad than at home, where even Internet searches of his name are censored and tributes to his life were hurriedly erased from social media.
But what further underscores the tragedy of his life was the nature of his politics. Liu was not calling for radical change or an overthrow of the regime. The putative reason for his 2009 imprisonment was his co-authorship of “Charter 08,” a manifesto calling for reform and greater freedom of expression within the Chinese system.
“Inevitably, some in the West will think that honoring Liu Xiaobo is an act of offense against China (or, more practically, a potential risk to relationships with the government). That’s a mistake,” wrote Evan Osnos, author of the National Book Award-winning “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.” “Honoring Liu is an act of dedication to China at its best. He was, to the end, unwilling to renounce his principled commitment to China’s constitution — to the freedoms enshrined in law but unprotected in practice.”
Osnos also offered an anecdote from when he met Liu: “If you never had a chance to meet him, it was easy to misread him as a cynic. On the contrary, in person, Liu could be unnervingly optimistic. On that day when I met him, in 2007, at a teahouse near his apartment, he told me that as China became stronger and more connected to the world, he imagined that the ‘current regime might become more confident.’ He went on, ‘It might become milder, more flexible, more open.’ In that prediction, he was, for now, wrong, and he paid with his life.”
“Although the regime of the post-Mao era is still a dictatorship, it is no longer fanatical but rather a rational dictatorship that has become increasingly adept at calculating its interests,” Liu once said in 2006, in another illustration of his optimism about the capacity for change.
“In calculating those interests, the regime has decided that it was safer to turn Liu into a martyr than to allow his ideas to spread unchallenged,” wrote Jamil Anderlini of the Financial Times. “This conclusion is probably correct in the short term. Thanks to the party’s efforts, the vast majority of Chinese people have never heard of Liu and most of those who have heard of him think he was a hopeless troublemaker. His death will not spark a revolution.”
Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the invasive, authoritarian control of the ruling government has expanded, while the space for civil society has contracted. Dissent and critical expression have been chilled, and it seems increasingly clear that Chinese officials aren’t bothered by censure from abroad.
“What is really important isn’t so much that the party is tightening its control — that is happening anyway,” noted Steve Tsang of the Chatham House think tank in London. “What is more important is that the party is not that worried about how the Liu Xiaobo case affects international opinion.” A budding global hegemon, China can withstand the clucking of outside powers over its human rights record.
It also doesn’t help that there is an American president who has explicitly argued against fighting for universal values and rights elsewhere. On the day of Liu’s death, President Trump happened to hail his Chinese counterpart Xi as a “terrific” and “talented” leader.
“It is especially shameful that Donald Trump praised Xi Jinping at the moment when Liu Xiaobo was dying,” said Teng Biao, a Chinese human rights lawyer living in exile in the United States. “Xi Jinping is not a respectable leader. He is a brutal dictator.”
“Western countries have adopted a policy of appeasement,” said Hu Jia, a prominent dissident who served more than three years in prison, to the New York Times. “The Communist Party has the resources to whip whomever they want.”
Hu, who still faces regular surveillance from police, offered an ominous warning: “Some have turned to believe in violent revolution. It makes people feel the door to a peaceful transition has closed.”
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