Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Liu: A champion for political change with a heart of gold

As his name was being read out in Oslo as this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo was likely in the cell he shares with five others in a prison in northeastern China. Perhaps he was reading his favourite book: Franz Kafka's The Castle, the tale of one man's lonely fight against a faceless and dictatorial bureaucracy.

Reading and writing letters to his wife and fellow dissident, Liu Xia, have occupied the largest chunk of Mr. Liu's life since he began on Dec. 25, 2009, the 11-year prison sentence that was the result of his latest attempt to challenge China's Communist Party rulers.

The books his wife is allowed to bring him must be some comfort to the former literary critic, who has emerged as the leading protagonist in the long struggle to bring about political change in this country.

Story continues below advertisement

That the 54-year-old native of Jilin province is now the face of China's democracy movement says as much about the scattered state of the country's political opposition as it does about Mr. Liu's perseverance and dedication to his principles.

Mr. Liu's first brush with fame, and the fickleness of Chinese law, came in 1989, when he returned from a lecture tour in the United States to join the swelling pro-democracy protests on Tiananmen Square.

The young professor joined hunger strikers and became a trusted adviser of the movement's student leaders, though he also railed publicly against their growing intransigence in the showdown with the authorities. "To replace a military dictatorship with a student dictatorship would hardly be a victory; it would be a failure, a tragic failure," he warned days ahead of the military crackdown.

As the troops and tanks moved in on the night of June 3, 1989, Mr. Liu initially wanted the demonstrators to hold their ground, and rallied thousands of students to the base of the Monument of People's Heroes, a stone pillar in the centre of Tiananmen Square. But as the prospect of bloodshed drew nearer, he changed his mind and argued in favour of a peaceful withdrawal.

He won the day - at one point helping destroy a machine gun that one of the protesters had brought to the square to use against the army - and was credited by some with saving many lives.

(Some Chinese dissidents argued this week against Mr. Liu's Nobel Peace Prize, accusing him of being too "soft" on the Communist Party, an accusation that dates back to divisions over tactics on Tiananmen Square. Pro-government critics, meanwhile, have long suggested he's unpatriotic, highlighting a 1988 remark he made suggesting that mainland China would need "300 years of colonialism" to catch up with Hong Kong.)

In the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown, Mr. Liu was fingered as one of the protest leaders and arrested after a minivan rammed him while he was riding his bicycle. He was detained 20 months in a maximum-security prison before being released without charge after signing a "letter of repentance."

Story continues below advertisement

But he would not be quieted. Mr. Liu was jailed again for six months in 1995 after publicly calling on the government to address the Tiananmen massacre. Nine months after he finished that term, he was sentenced to spend three more years in a re-education-through-labour camp for "disturbing the social order."

He was freed in 1999, then jailed again in 2008 following the publication of Charter 08, a manifesto that calls for freedom of expression, judicial independence and the election of public officials in China. Though more than 300 dissidents put their names on the charter, and thousands more have signed it since, Mr. Liu was singled out by police as its primary author.

It was while he was interned in the labour camp that Mr. Liu and his long-time friend, Liu Xia, decided to marry. The two had been courting for years, brought together by a shared love of poetry. Their 1996 wedding was a brief ceremony conducted inside the camp, followed by a modest lunch with relatives. But in his closing statement to the court before beginning his current 11-year sentence, Mr. Liu said his relationship gave him his strength to keep fighting.

"Given your love, sweetheart, I would face my forthcoming trial calmly, with no regrets about my choice and looking forward to tomorrow optimistically," he told the court, speaking to an absent Liu Xia.

Remarkably, he showed the same open heart to his accusers. "I still want to tell the regime that deprives me of my freedom, I stand by the belief I expressed 20 years ago [on Tiananmen Square]- I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who have monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentence me, are my enemies. While I'm unable to accept your surveillance, arrest, prosecution or sentencing, I respect your professions and personalities," he said in the same closing statement.

But, he added, "I do not feel guilty for following my constitutional right to freedom of expression, for fulfilling my social responsibility as a Chinese citizen. Even if accused of it, I would have no complaints."

Story continues below advertisement


Others who have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but have been prevented from collecting it in person.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Leader of the opposition in Myanmar, which was formerly called Burma, Ms. Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her struggle for democracy and human rights by using non-violent means. The 65-year-old Ms. Suu Kyi's opposition party won the last elections in 1990, but the results were ignored by the ruling military junta. She has been under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years.

Lech Walesa

The Polish trade union leader was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983. Fearing that Poland's government would not let him back into the country, he was unable to accept the prize himself. His wife Danuta accepted the prize on his behalf. He later served as president of Poland from 1990 to 1995.

Andrei Sakharov

The eminent Soviet nuclear physicist who became an advocate for disarmament and a human rights activist was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. He was not allowed to leave the Soviet Union to collect it. His wife read his speech at the ceremony in Oslo.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct Licensing Options
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to