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Obituary

Dissident Liu Xiaobo provoked China's fury

The country's most prominent and outspoken political prisoner, he wrote of love, philosophy and human freedoms, and won the Nobel Peace Prize for his long struggle for human rights

Read a selection of Liu Xiaobo's writing

His pen was a sword wielded at China's Communist Party, a spotlight illuminating his country's social contradictions and a minstrel soothing his wife with poems of tender lament for the woman he loved, and the life they were forced to live apart.

For decades, Liu Xiaobo was one of his country's most important voices, a critic, thinker and scourge of authoritarianism whose work won him the Nobel Peace Prize and the fury of a Chinese state that repeatedly incarcerated him, making him its most famed political prisoner.

The Chinese government announced Mr. Liu's death on Thursday. Mr. Liu, 61, had been battling liver cancer in a hospital where he spent his final weeks on medical parole from an 11-year prison sentence. He was sentenced in 2009 on charges of "inciting subversion of state power," accused by the Chinese government of working with anti-China Western forces and seeking to overturn the government.

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He is only the second Peace Prize laureate to die in custody, after German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who spent his final days under the watch of Nazi secret police.

"Terribly sad that this champion of human rights has died. We mourn his loss but his message of hope and freedom will endure," Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland tweeted on Thursday.

Born the third of five brothers in China's northeastern Jilin province, Mr. Liu's father, a literature professor, was a Communist Party member with an enduring faith in the party's theories and leadership. His father's library of Marx, Engels and Lenin provided an early introduction to western philosophers; his father's strict approach to child-rearing also helped to cultivate an early rebellious streak in Mr. Liu, who first found license to run wild during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. It was a period that left a profound mark on him, sobering him to the realities of life in Communist China.

"The lot of us grew up under a savage regime, which cultivated hate, worshipped violence, indulged in cruelty and encouraged indifference," he once wrote. "It made brutality and viciousness part of people's genes."

Encouraged to pursue knowledge by his father, he studied Chinese literature after the Cultural Revolution, writing poetry as a university student, reading Kafka and Dostoesvky and growing caught up in the student ferment that produced a nascent democracy movement in the late 1970s.

He became a literature professor, writing about philosophy and human freedoms. He provoked controversy with acerbic critiques of popular domestic writers and disdain for China's most famed thinker, Confucius. His rising profile in an opening China allowed him to travel abroad in the 1980s and he was lecturing in the U.S. when student protests began to roil his home country. He returned to China in April of 1989.

"In his mind, that was going to be an opportunity to write history, one he couldn't miss," said Hu Ping, a friend of Mr. Liu who is a critic of China and editor of the Chinese-language monthly Beijing Spring.

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Mr. Liu joined the protesters at Tiananmen Square, participating in a hunger strike. But as tanks approached in early June, Mr. Liu orchestrated a negotiation with the troops that allowed students to leave peacefully.

"Many students wanted to stay and fight and die for democracy, including myself," said Rose Tang, who was there at the time, and has since edited a Facebook page devoted to Mr. Liu. She now credits him with saving her life, and told him as much years later.

"He stuttered: 'Don't thank me,'" Ms. Tang said.

"He deserved the Peace Prize definitely for saving the lives of some 2,000 students inside Tiananmen Square alone," she said. "As a thinker, activist and moral leader, he was ahead of his time and still is ahead of our time," she said.

Pro-democracy activists stage a sit-in protest demanding the release of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, outside China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong on July 10, 2017.

To Chinese authorities, he was a traitorous figure who stomped on his homeland and compatriots and organized opposition against them. Bitter at a society that he faulted for allowing the rise of Chairman Mao and authoritarian Communist rule, he famously said it would require "300 years of colonialism" to achieve real change in China. "Chinese people are totally weak both physically and psychologically," he said once. Another time he argued that "if Chinese people want to live as human beings, they should adopt the system of Western countries."

He was detained after the Tiananmen protests and then sent to a labour camp in 1996 for "disturbing public order." It was at that camp that he married Liu Xia, and the bright flame of their romance kindled an outpouring of poetry tinged with the sadness that theirs would always be a relationship interrupted by the interventions of a hostile state. (A previous marriage produced a son from whom he was estranged.)

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Neither love nor his time behind bars moderated Mr. Liu's political passions. He refused the entreaties of friends to leave for the safety of a democratic country, telling them he admired Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese Nobel laureate who endured years of house arrest for her pro-democracy views.

"Liu Xiaobo took her as a model," Mr. Hu said. "And he believed that China needs a model of morality, someone who stays inside China."

He wrote under heavy surveillance, until he co-authored Charter 08, a 2008 document that accused China's Communist Party of legion wrongdoings and called for the end of one-party rule.

He was arrested hours before the document was released and sentenced to prison for 11 years before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, given to him in absentia for "his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China."

Prison ended the public part of that struggle, by silencing him.

But it also imbued him with a moral force.

"The appearance of a martyr will completely change the soul of a nationality," he wrote in a letter to exiled Chinese writer Liao Yiwu. "Gandhi was one occasion, as was [Vaclav] Havel and the farmer's kid born in a manger 2,000 years ago. The improvement of humankind is up to these infrequently-born people."

And as with those others, Mr. Liu's words remain. They are incisive and passionate; inflected with a sense of history and justice; unstained by despair or enmity but cutting in denouncing nationalism, repression and atavism. They are also infused with an optimism that authoritarianism must one day give way to political openness and individual autonomy.

Veteran Chinese pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo in 1995.


Selected writings

I have no enemies and no hatred. … Hatred can rot away at a person's intelligence and conscience. Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society's tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation's progress toward freedom and democracy. That is why I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation's development and social change, to counter the regime's hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love. … There is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme.

"I Have No Enemies: My Final Statement"

Nobel Lecture in Absentia, December 10, 2010


I'm your lifelong prisoner, my love

like a baby loath to be born

clinging to your warm uterus

you provide all my oxygen

all my serenity

A baby prisoner

in the depths of your being

unafraid of alcohol and nicotine

the poisons of your loneliness

I need your poisons

need them too much

Maybe as your prisoner

I'll never see the light of day

but I believe

darkness is my destiny

inside you

all is well

– Your Lifelong Prisoner – To Xia, 1997

Translation by Susan Wilf

A photo released by the Liu family taken on October 22, 2002 shows Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia in Beijing





There should be room for my extremism; I certainly don't demand of others that they be like me…

I'm pessimistic about mankind in general, but my pessimism does not allow for escape. Even though I might be faced with nothing but a series of tragedies, I will still struggle, still show my opposition.

– Liu Xiaobo, November 1988, translated by Geremie Barmé


The unique thing about man is that he is capable of being aware of his tragic fate; he can be aware of the fact that he will die; he can be aware that the ultimate meaning of the universe and life itself is unknowable. A nation that is without an awareness of tragedy and death is to some extent a nation that is still in the mists of primal ignorance.

– From a "A Critique of Choice, an exchange with Li Zhehou", translated by Geremie Barmé


No matter how strong the freedom-denying power of the regime and its apparatus becomes, each individual person can still attempt to view him- or herself as a free person, i.e., to live an honest life in dignity. In any society governed by dictators, if people who pursue freedom state and practice this ideal publicly, and if they can find ways to act within their immediate daily contexts without fear, then ordinary daily life can become a force that undermines the system of enslavement.

– To Change a Regime by Changing a Society, 2006, translated by Perry Link


For you, a single room is

Heaven returning home, deliverance

now, when everyone's become a singer

and there's none to mourn the dead

you alone keep still beside that empty chair

Bloody deeds remembered grip the

throat

words are salty, voices dim

neither round-the-clock surveillance

nor the watcher in your mind

can snatch away your pen

and the blizzard in the painting

Van Gogh and You, for Xiao Xia, August 14, 1997, translated by A. E. Clark


I'm quite opposed to the belief that China's backwardness is the fault of a few egomaniac rulers. It is the doing of every Chinese. That's because the system is the product of the people. All of China's tragedies are authored, directed, performed, and appreciated by the Chinese themselves. There's no need to blame anyone else. … Without the right environment, Mao Zedong could never have done what he did.

– Liu Xiaobo, quoted in a 1988 essay by Jin Zhong, translated by Geremie Barmé


China has transitioned from politics-are-everything in the Mao era to money-is-everything in the post-Mao years. … But a commonality—amorality—has underlain the two periods and has been there all along. The extreme political hypocrisy of the Mao years has blossomed, in post-Mao times, into a bouquet of hypocrisies in the several spheres of public life: officials are cynical about their governing duties, businesses are cynical about product quality, and scholars are cynical about academic standards. The whole society seems to have tossed integrity aside, as fakes and counterfeits sweep the nation. In this sea of counterfeits, the mightiest of them all—counterfeit democracy—is precisely the area that the current regime is most loath to let anyone talk about. In short, the inhumanity of the Mao era, which left China in moral shambles, is the most important cause of the widespread and oft-noted "values vacuum" that we observe today.

The Erotic Carnival in Recent Chinese History, 2004, translated by Nick Admussen


The political reality, which is plain for anyone to see, is that China has many laws but no rule of law; it has a constitution but no constitutional government. The ruling elite continues to cling to its authoritarian power and fights off any move toward political change.

The stultifying results are endemic official corruption, an undermining of the rule of law, weak human rights, decay in public ethics, crony capitalism, growing inequality between the wealthy and the poor, pillage of the natural environment as well as of the human and historical environments, and the exacerbation of a long list of social conflicts, especially, in recent times, a sharpening animosity between officials and ordinary people.

For China the path that leads out of our current predicament is to divest ourselves of the authoritarian notion of reliance on an "enlightened overlord" or an "honest official" and to turn instead toward a system of liberties, democracy, and the rule of law, and toward fostering the consciousness of modern citizens who see rights as fundamental and participation as a duty.

– Charter 08

A photograph of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo is held by his wife Liu Xia during an interview in Beijing

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