China activists left to mark Liu Xiaobo's death in private amid heavy censorship

Some take to Twitter to mark the fifth anniversary of the Nobel peace laureate's death from advanced liver cancer.
By Jia Ao and Gu Ting for RFA Mandarin and by Lee Yuk Yue for RFA Cantonese
China activists left to mark Liu Xiaobo's death in private amid heavy censorship
Illustration by Rebel Pepper

Five years on from the death in prison of Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, activists in China have been forced to mark the anniversary mostly in private, due to ongoing bans on public references to him.

A friend of Liu's who gave only the pseudonym Gu Tian said some people had found ways to mark the anniversary despite a ban on the topic on social media platforms.

"Xiaobo ... has been gone for five years. Xiaobo was a very good and honest person, who could see beyond the basic concept of the Chinese nation and China," Gu told RFA.

"He fought back against an autocratic regime," he said.

Some people took to Twitter, which requires circumvention tools to access from mainland China, to leave messages commemorating Liu's death at the age of 61 from advanced liver cancer, while serving an 11-year jail term for "incitement to subvert state power."

An account named for rights lawyer Yu Wensheng said Liu had "sacrificed his life to lead China towards democracy."

"Today, I bowed three times in the direction of the sea to honor his heroic spirit."

A pro-democracy activist holds a portrait of late Chinese Nobel prize winner Liu Xiaobo while attending a vigil outside a train station in Shinjuku district of Tokyo on June 4, 2022, to mark the 33rd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing. (AFP)
A pro-democracy activist holds a portrait of late Chinese Nobel prize winner Liu Xiaobo while attending a vigil outside a train station in Shinjuku district of Tokyo on June 4, 2022, to mark the 33rd anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing. (AFP)

Twitter user Li Fang wrote: "Many have forgotten Liu Xiaobo ... who died in prison five years ago. But China hasn't changed in those five years; the oppression and persecution are still the same. Forget Liu Xiaobo, and you forget China."

Another user identified as Wang Xiaoshan also mentioned the fifth anniversary of Liu's death, which came after he was jailed for co-authoring Charter 08, which promoted democracy and constitutional government.

In previous year, activists have gathered or taken photos at the shoreline to commemorate Liu, whose ashes were scattered at sea on the insistence of ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials.

Gu said he was among of around a dozen people detained in 2017 in the southern city of Guangzhou for a shoreline gathering.

"I was in Guangzhou back then, and I was detained ... a dozen of us were detained together for a month," he said.

"It's only now, looking back, with the myth of Chinese nationalism exploded, I realize that we should stand on the side of the people."

Widow in self-isolation

Liu Xiaobo died of liver cancer while in hospital in police custody in 2017.

His wife Liu Xia, who had been under house arrest since his Nobel Peace Prize was announced in October 2010, was finally allowed to leave the country in 2018 and settled in Berlin.

Since then, she has kept a low profile and rarely appears in public.

Liao Tianqi, vice-chairman of the PEN International Peace Committee, who maintains contact with Liu Xia, Liu remains in a form of self-isolation for various reasons, but is generally in good health.

"She may choose to have very little contact with others, but I know she doesn't have major health problems, and her financial situation is OK, too," Liao, who officiates at a memorial service for Liu in London on Wednesday, told RFA.

In the five years since Liu's death, China has seen very little in the way of organized or large-scale activism.

What's more, the daily movements of petitioners, dissidents, and human rights activists in various places are being monitored ever more closely.

At the end of 2019, more than a dozen human rights lawyers and activists were harassed, summoned, detained, and even arrested by police for gathering in the southeastern port city of Xiamen, including New Citizens' Movement founder Xu Zhiyong and human rights lawyer Ding Jiaxi, who were recently tried for subversion behind closed doors.

Shortly before his arrest, Liu Xiaobo told RTHK that under a dictatorial regime like China's, he has had to "pay the price of telling the truth."

But he added: "I insist on my beliefs. I insist on telling the truth. I insist on criticizing this dictatorship. I insist on a fair evaluation of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, and for historic justice for the spirits of the dead."

Former 1989 student leader Wang Dan, founder of the Washington-based think tank Dialogue China, said in a commentary broadcast on RFA's Mandarin Service that Liu represented a tenacious tendency to civil resistance in the face of state violence over the past three decades.

Xi crushes civil society

After Xi Jinping came to power, he launched a crushing attack on Chinese civil society, which made many people stop hoping for any kind of civil resistance, Wang wrote.

"But if we understand the history of Liu Xiaobo's personal struggle, we will know that even in the most difficult and darkest period after the June 4th [1989] crackdown, the flame of resistance was never extinguished among the Chinese people," Wang said.


Chinese Dissident, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo, 61, Dies of Cancer

"We shouldn't forget Liu Xiaobo, because he carried a symbolic meaning."

Zan Aizong, one of the first signatories of Charter 08 and a member of the Independent Chinese PEN Association, said it was hard to see any scope for resistance in today's China, however.

“At the core of a civil society is a certain degree of freedom and rule of law, some judicial independence to guarantee the rights of citizens," Zan said.

"If the authorities claim that everyone has freedom of speech, but there is no judicial independence to guarantee that freedom of speech, how can there be a civil society?"

And there are growing concerns at the targeting of those closest to anyone bold enough to take a stand.

Yuan Shanshan, the wife of Beijing human rights lawyer Xie Yanyi, posted on Monday that the couple's six-year-old daughter was due to start primary school in September, but when she completed the enrollment procedures required by the Miyun district education commission, the application was rejected.

Repeated calls to Yuan's phone rang unanswered on Tuesday.

The overseas-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network tweeted on Wednesday that Liu was the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in prison since German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky.

"Remember Liu Xiaobo, carry on his legacy," the group said.

Hong Kong suppresses commemorations

In Hong Kong, where a draconian security law has ushered in a citywide crackdown on peaceful dissent and political opposition, activists said they are no longer able to mark Liu's anniversary with public ceremonies and exhibits as they once did.

Former pro-democracy lawmaker Avery Ng said the city is now fairly similar to other cities in China when it comes to freedom of speech.

"We in Hong Kong have been less and less able to speak freely on certain issues over the years," Ng said. "Ordinary citizens, civil organizations and political parties, even the media, all face the same concern."

"I'm sure many frontline reporters or media organizations haven't forgotten this day, and would like to report it, but there isn't even cursory coverage, given the current environment," he said.

"I fear that, over time, some of the history of Hong Kong will be forgotten or even rewritten by the new generation."

Liu's best-known work as co-author was Charter 08, a document that was signed by more than 300 prominent scholars, writers, and rights activists around the country.

In the document, the former literature professor called for concerned Chinese citizens to rally to bring about change, citing an increasing loss of control by the Communist Party and heightened hostility between the authorities and ordinary people.

Liu's late diagnosis, and the refusal of the ruling Chinese Communist Party to allow him to go overseas on medical parole, sparked widespread international anger.

Liu was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize "for his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China" in a decision that infuriated Beijing, which said he had broken Chinese law. During the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, he was represented by an empty chair.

Beijing cut off trade ties with Norway in the wake of the award, and placed Liu's wife, the poet and photographer Liu Xia, under house arrest for eight years from the date the award was announced.

Liu Xia, who has been living in Germany since 2018, has suffered from severe mental health problems as a result of her treatment at the hands of the authorities.

Liu said in 2019 that she and Liu Xiaobo had little chance to speak to each other in the weeks before his death, and that she was having trouble accepting his loss.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.


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