Remembering Liu Xiaobo (1955-2017): China's legendary human rights activist
He is best known for being an active participant in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Though his work was banned in China, Xiaobo shot to international fame for his two-decade long struggle
On July 13, Liu Xiaobo, China’s most outspoken dissident, died of liver cancer after receiving medical parole from a jail sentence awarded in 2008.
Born on December 28, 1955, in Changchun, Jilin, Xiaobo hailed from an intellectual family — his father was a professor who was loyal to the Communist Party. The New York Times reported that Yu Jie, a friend and biographer, named Xiaobo a dissident among dissidents.
He started his career as a fierce literary critic as he grappled with important political questions. This was in the backdrop of Communist leader Deng Xiaoping resisting major currents in events as the rest of the world heartily embraced economic liberalisation.
Xiaobo, then a visiting scholar at Columbia University, is best remembered for being a key figure in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, where Chinese fought for democratic reforms and raised their voice against corruption.
“If we don’t join the students in the square and face the same kind of danger, then we don’t have any right to speak,” Xiaobo was quoted by Hou.
It was his intervention that saved the lives of hundreds of students from brutal government crackdowns on the protests, including open firing at protestors at the square.
Xiaobo was arrested soon after the crackdown and was in detention for 21 months, losing his job as a University Professor in the process. He was also termed by the Communist Party a “Black-hand” who is out to spread the turmoil around him.
This was the first of the many arrests to follow. The BBC reported that after his release, he was sent to a labour camp for three years after he sought a release for the people imprisoned in the 1989 protests.
In 1996, the authorities granted him permission to marry Liu Xia, an artist and poet, whilst still in jail.
Xiaobo and other like-minded intellectuals created a draft of a document that they titled Charter 08. This was the document that called for China to have a legislative democracy based on a new constitution, as well as a state that respected human rights.
He went around circulating a petition in favour of the charter, which received close to 8,500 signatures. He was jailed a year later, in 2009, on charges of subversion and sentenced to 11 years in prison.
For a statement in his trial, Xiaobo said: “Hatred can rot a person’s wisdom and conscience. An enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation and inflame brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a country’s advance toward freedom and democracy," the New York Times reported.
The Nobel Prize
Although his works were banned and his voice silenced in China, Xiaobo shot to international fame for his two-decade long struggle. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010.
Liu Xia told Reuters that he wanted to dedicate his prize to all those who died in the Tiananmen crackdown. "He felt sad, quite upset. He cried. He felt it was hard to deal with," she said.
An infuriated China denied permission for him to leave the country. He was awarded the Prize with an empty chair honouring his absence.
With three years left to his prison sentence in northeast China, he was diagnosed with liver cancer at an inoperable stage.
Despite pleas form all over the country, he was not allowed medical parole until much later, when he was hospitalised in northeast China.
Chairwoman of the Nobel Committee Berit Reiss-Andersen stated that the Chinese government “bears a heavy responsibility for his premature death”.
BBC quoted Xiaobo in 2009, saying that he had “no enemies” and that prison conditions were better since his last incarceration, and that management was more humane.
Such conditions made him hopeful about the future of China, which would, in the end, become a free nation "ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme".His last words were to his wife, "live a good life”. She was later placed under house arrest and kept away from her family and any other external contact, with no explanation by the authorities.