POLITICAL DISSIDENCE is a great, and beautiful, mystery. For those living under repressive rule, the path of least resistance is, well, not to resist — to accommodate and survive, or, in less honorable but hardly rare cases, to collaborate. And yet, some do choose the more decent and difficult way. Out of idealism, necessity, sheer refusal to submit or some unfathomable combination of all three, they stand up, they speak out, they assume risks.
China’s Liu Xiaobo epitomized the dissident tradition, fighting back relentlessly but peacefully against a regime in his country that epitomized modern-day authoritarianism — until he died of liver cancer on Thursday at age 61.
Mr. Liu was born in 1955, amid the horrific throes of the early People’s Republic, and went on to study literature and philosophy, earning his doctorate in 1988. Moved by the fall of communism in Europe and the limited opening under Deng Xiaoping in China, he joined the student protests on Tiananmen Square in 1989. This conscientious activism earned him a two-year prison sentence. Later he served three years in a labor camp for other purported political offenses. Mr. Liu’s causes were liberty and democracy, which he considered universally applicable, not Western imports for which his native country was somehow “not ready.” His specific demand was that the Chinese Communist authorities accept the need for a constitutional overhaul that would establish elections, rule of law and freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly and of religion.
In December 2008, Mr. Liu joined other intellectuals in publishing Charter 08, a pro-democracy manifesto modeled on the Charter 77 issued by Czech dissidents 31 years earlier. Notably, the document not only called upon China’s rulers to enable a better future for their people; it also told the truth about the “gargantuan” price China’s people had paid since the 1949 revolution: “Tens of millions have lost their lives, and several generations have seen their freedom, their happiness, and their human dignity cruelly trampled,” the charter observed.
Forthrightly addressing China’s past, present and future earned Mr. Liu an 11-year sentence, for “inciting subversion of state power,” which began in late 2009 and which he was still serving, albeit on medical parole at a hospital, when he drew his last breath. His steadfast dissidence also earned Mr. Liu the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, though Beijing refused to let him travel to Oslo for the award ceremony, just as it also refused to let him receive friends and well-wishers in his final days, or to go abroad for medical treatment.
These final indignities were intended to degrade and humiliate, but the attempt was futile and indeed shames those who made it. Shortly before Mr. Liu died, the man ultimately responsible for this and so many other abuses in China, President Xi Jinping, was basking in the glamour and glory of international politics at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg. Yet throughout Mr. Xi’s rule, the true locus of honor in China has been any place of confinement occupied by Liu Xiaobo.
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