When Liu Xiaobo died in custody after years of persecution and imprisonment by the Chinese government, the world collectively mourned for days. The story of a Chinese dissident made famous by his empty seat at the 2010 Nobel ceremony reached millions. While Liu’s actions brought him renown, it was the emptiness in his wake that made him an enduring symbol of Chinese tyranny.
On July 10, almost exactly two years after Liu’s death, Chinese activist Ji Sizun died at 69, guarded by state security in a hospital in Fujian province just two months after being released from detention. In an all-too-familiar pattern, Ji was first arrested in 2014 for “gathering a crowd to disrupt order of a public place,” “picking quarrels” and “provoking trouble.” Later, he was convicted of supporting the 2014 occupation movement for universal suffrage in Hong Kong. According to Human Rights Watch, Ji entered prison in 2014 in good health but succumbed to coronary artery disease, diabetes and high blood pressure while detained. All requests for medical parole were denied. During his hospitalization, authorities allowed only very limited visits by Ji’s family.
Ji’s harrowing story is a tragic echo of what happened to Liu — with one key difference: Because Ji never won a Nobel Peace Prize, his imprisonment, torture and death were not catapulted into international headlines. But his story reflects China’s brutal, merciless treatment of its activists just as much as Liu’s — and also reveals just how ubiquitous and ongoing such mistreatment is.
For Chinese dissidents, the price of having independent thoughts is increasingly one’s life. As with Liu and Ji, many prominent prisoners of conscience have become gravely ill while detained and been denied appropriate treatment, often succumbing at time to death either during or shortly after release. In the two years since Liu’s death, thousands of dissidents have reportedly been silenced, dehumanized and even tortured while unlawfully detained by Chinese authorities.
Under Xi Jinping, the Chinese president and Communist Party leader, the authoritarian grip of the government has become even more unrelenting. Though the government in 2013 abolished “re-education through labor” — an infamous practice that extrajudicially detained people inconvenient to the regime and sent them to labor camps without trial — it was ultimately a hollow victory for civil society. All Beijing did was rename its multi-pronged Orwellian machine.
Today, more than 1 million Uighurs are detained in internment camps in Xinjiang. In June, Uighur writer Nurmuhammad Tohti died after being denied treatment while interned in a re-education camp. In 2018, Tibetan political prisoner Shonu Palden died after medical treatment failed to alleviate his torture-induced injuries. In 2017, writer Yang Tongyan died from brain cancer 11 years into his 12-year sentence for “subverting state power.” Even those who are alive, such as activist and lawyer Wang Quanzhang, have been weakened both physically and emotionally.
Yet these other tragedies have received little attention in China and abroad — and this is a mistake.
When Liu’s death was announced, people around the world trembled in anger. But perhaps the most unforgivable thing about his death was that it was not unique. Where is this outrage for the countless other victims of China’s ever-expanding torture apparatus? Where is the mourning for others who have been forced to sacrifice everything for their beliefs? Liu’s imprisonment and death were heartbreaking and should not be forgotten, but neither should the countless others who have taken up his mantle and been punished for it. It is not only the famous sacrifices that matter but also those of the millions of victims that contribute to China’s growing head count — the victims the Chinese Communist Party thought they could erase without consequence.
Each unlawful detainment is an attempt by the Chinese regime to nip dissent and freedom of thought in the bud. Each loss of life is an example of how not to behave. And each person who sees the tragic examples that came before them and still decides to fight for their ideas, knowing full well the consequences, is an inspiration worth honoring.
When Liu died, the BBC labeled him “the man China couldn’t erase.” China should not get away with erasing so many others.