Liu Xiaobo


“I hope to be the last victim of China’s endless literary inquisition,
and that after this no one else will ever be jailed for their speech.”

Liu Xiaobo in a 2009 statement that was read before his empty chair
at the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in Norway.

July 13, 2017

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

A poster depicting Liu Xiaobo is displayed in a file photo. Photo: AFP

Prominent Chinese dissident and Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo has died of liver cancer after being transferred to hospital from prison only after his disease was in the final stages. He was 61.

Liu's late diagnosis, and the refusal of the ruling Chinese Communist Party to allow him to go overseas on medical parole, had sparked widespread public anger, with the governments of Germany and the U.S. offering him the best possible treatment.

At the time of his death, Liu had been serving an 11-year jail term for "incitement to subvert state power," linked to his online writings promoting democracy and constitutional government. They included Charter 08, a document that was signed by more than 300 prominent scholars, writers, and rights activists around the country.

In it, 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.

"As a result, it has caused an unbroken chain of human rights disasters and social crises, held back the development of the Chinese people, and hindered the progress of human civilization."

Liu Xiaobo's wife Liu Xia takes care of her husband at an unidentified hospital in Shenyang, Liaoning province, June 30, 2017. Photo courtesy of Zeng Jinyan

The Charter called for a genuine use of the Constitution and institutions that uphold the rule of law, democratic reforms, and human rights, warning of disaster amid growing social tensions in the absence of such reforms.

Before the Charter, Liu had served as the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center writers' group from 2003 to 2007, as well as heading Democratic China magazine since the mid-1990s.

Empty chair in Oslo

A portrait of Liu Xiaobo hangs near the empty chair placed in his honor during the ceremony in Oslo, Norway in which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia on Dec. 10, 2010. Photo: AFP

He was the third person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison or detention, and was represented at the awards ceremony in Oslo in December 2010 by an empty chair.

Born in Changchun, in the northeastern province of Jilin, Liu was taken by his father to Inner Mongolia in 1969, when intellectuals across China were sent "down to the countryside" during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and initially worked as a farm laborer.

But with the reinstatement of China's universities, Liu joined the rest of his generation in applying to college, winning a place to read Chinese literature at Jilin University in 1977, and receiving his master's degree from Beijing Normal University, and began to make a mark in literary and ideological circles with his radical opinions.

A picture of Chinese Noble laureate Liu Xiaobo and his wife, poet Liu Xia is seen on the wall outside the Chinese Liaison Office of Hong Kong after the death of Liu Xiaobo on July 13, 2017. Photo: AFP

He went on to lecture at the same university after gaining his PhD, and was a visiting scholar at Columbia University, the University of Oslo, and the University of Hawaii.

His books were banned in China soon after the 1989 student-led pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square.

Liu was detained by police two days before the Charter went public on Human Rights Day 2008, and formally arrested on June 23, 2009.

His lawyers said the case against him was mostly built around six articles he published since 2005, as well as his participation in the drafting and promotion of Charter 08.

The articles appeared on foreign news Web sites including China Observer and the BBC, and including titles such as "China's Dictatorial Patriotism," "The Many Facets of Chinese Communist Party Dictatorship," and "The Negative Effects on World Democracy of the Rise of Dictatorship."

House arrest for Liu's wife

The indictment document described Liu's crimes as "very great," accusing him of "using rumors and slander to overthrow the socialist system."

Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia in a photo taken in Beijing, Oct. 22, 2002. Photo: AFP

He was found guilty on Dec. 25, 2009 of "engaging in agitation activities, such as the spreading of rumors and defaming of the government, aimed at subversion of the state and overthrowing the socialist system" and handed an 11-year jail term, which he served mostly in Liaoning, far from his Beijing-based friends and family.

After his Nobel peace prize was announced in October 2010, Liu's wife Liu Xia was held for several years under house arrest at the couple's home in Beijing, and prevented from receiving visitors or earning a living. She suffered from pronounced mental and physical health problems that friends blamed on this unofficial incarceration.

During his last illness, many retired officials and Chinese intellectuals expressed their anger over Liu's treatment at the hands of the government.

Liu Xia (R), the wife of jailed Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, talking to a visitor at her Beijing home, Dec. 28, 2012. Photo: AFP

Former top Communist Party aide Bao Tong said Liu had never been guilty of subversion.

"To subvert the state would be to remove power from the people and put it elsewhere. Any act that does not have this result cannot be called subversion," Bao wrote in a Dec. 23, 2009 essay ahead of Liu's trial.

"It is patriotic to defend the sovereignty of the people. All movements that try to do this are patriotic movements," he wrote.

"It is patriotic to defend the right to freedom of speech, publication, association, demonstration, and public protest, and to safeguard the public's right to know what is happening, to express themselves, to take part in political life and to oversee the government."

Chinese Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo's wife Liu Xia views footage of her husband at their Beijing home in February 2009. Photo: AFP / EyePress News / EyePress

In a statement written on the same day, which was never read out at his trial, Liu said he didn't blame the authorities for their treatment of him.

"I have no enemies, and no hatred," he wrote. "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."

"For hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation’s spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy," Liu wrote.

But while he said he hoped to "defuse hatred with love," Liu added: "I do not feel guilty for following my constitutional right to freedom of expression, for fulfilling my social responsibility as a Chinese citizen."

Reported by RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

Liu Xiaobo's Quotes

Nobel Lecture in Absentia, delivered in Oslo December 10, 2010, read by actress Liv Ullmann

(Translated by Human Rights in China)

I have no enemies and no hatred. None of the police who monitored, arrested, and interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who indicted me, and none of the judges who judged me are my enemies.
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.

People lay flowers and light candles infront of a photo of Nobel peace laureate Liu Xiaobo who died July 13, 2017 outside the Nobel´s Peace center in Oslo, Norway. Photo: AFP
It is precisely because of such convictions and personal experience that I firmly believe that China's political progress will not stop, and I, filled with optimism, look forward to the advent of a future free China. For 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 hope that I will be the last victim of China's endless literary inquisitions and that from now on no one will be incriminated because of speech. Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.

China’s Charter 08 (December 2008)

Translated by Perry Link, published by New York Review of Books

We are approaching the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre of pro-democracy student protesters. The Chinese people, who have endured human rights disasters and uncountable struggles across these same years, now include many who see clearly that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values.

Liu Xiaobo, in an undated photo. Photo: RFA
By departing from these values, the Chinese government’s approach to “modernization” has proven disastrous. It has stripped people of their rights, destroyed their dignity, and corrupted normal human intercourse.
In 1998 the Chinese government signed two important international human rights conventions; in 2004 it amended its constitution to include the phrase “respect and protect human rights”; and this year, 2008, it has promised to promote a “national human rights action plan.” Unfortunately most of this political progress has extended no further than the paper on which it is written. 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.
China, as a major nation of the world, as one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and as a member of the UN Council on Human Rights, should be contributing to peace for humankind and progress toward human rights. Unfortunately, we stand today as the only country among the major nations that remains mired in authoritarian politics. Our political system continues to produce human rights disasters and social crises, thereby not only constricting China’s own development but also limiting the progress of all of human civilization. This must change, truly it must. The democratization of Chinese politics can be put off no longer.

Liu Xiaobo: A Reporter Looks Back

File photo of the aftermath of the military crackdown on pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square, June 4, 1989. Photo: AFP

As we mourn Liu Xiaobo, who died at age 61 on July 13, many will remember him mainly for his calls for democracy and an end to one-party rule in China, which brought him an 11-year prison sentence.

Liu was already known as China’s most prominent dissident, when in 2008 he helped to draft Charter 08, a citizens’ manifesto signed by more than 12,000 Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists.

Liu was sent to prison in 2009 on charges of “inciting subversion,” and in 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

But it’s also important to remember the role he played in negotiating a truce between student protesters and the Chinese army at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3-4, 1989.

Before midnight on June 3, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army had already killed dozens if not hundreds of Chinese civilians as its troops drove through crowds of protesters to reach the square.

With students arguing among themselves whether to leave Tiananmen Square or die there, Liu and three colleagues maintained a semblance of order on the square and negotiated a truce with two PLA officers that allowed hundreds of students to safely escape.

I was The Washington Post’s Beijing bureau chief at the time. Plainclothes police dragged away the one of the two American reporters who were working with me on the square, kicked him repeatedly in the head, threw him into an unmarked car, and detained him.

A friend had called me at around 10:30 p.m. to report that PLA soldiers several miles to the west of Tiananmen Square had begun opening fire. They had killed stone-throwing civilian protesters who were resisting their advance toward the square.

Robin Munro, a human rights activist whom I knew, was one of the few foreigners left on the square when troops, tanks, and armored personnel carriers arrived at its northern side. Munro watched as Liu Xiaobo and three colleagues decided to reach out to the military and tried to establish order.

In April 1989, Liu Xiaobo was a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York City, and he felt that he must go to Beijing and support the students. He didn’t want to follow the path of many Chinese scholars, who, as he described it, loved to talk but always failed to act.

As he explained to a colleague, “If we don’t join the students at the square and face the same kind of danger, then we don’t have the right to speak…”

By the time Liu arrived in Beijing the situation had grown more serious. Chinese sources with government connections told me that Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader, had decided that the Communist Party had been too lenient with the students.

A People’s Daily editorial published on April 26 reflected Deng’s views. It accused some of the student protesters of creating “turmoil” and aiming to “overthrow the government and Party.”

Hunger strike

On June 2, Liu Xiaobo and three friends--Gao Xin, Hou Dejian, and Zhou Duo—launched a three-day hunger strike to demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice for the students’ prodemocracy cause.

The four issued a statement in which they declared that “Chinese intellectuals must end our thousands-of-years-old tradition of standing in docility before power.”

They also stressed the peaceful nature of the student-led democracy movement, which, they said, had “consistently used legal, nonviolent, rational, and peaceful methods in its pursuit of freedom, democracy, and human rights.”

I and other reporters could confirm the truth of that statement based on our daily and often nightly trips to the square and areas near it. We estimated that crowds numbering more than a million altogether had gathered to support the student protesters.

Despite the government’s allegation that the students had created “turmoil,” I had never seen Beijing citizens in such a friendly mood. The crime rate even appeared to go down.

It was so peaceful that my wife Muriel was able to go out each day and shoot video of the protesters, often pushing along our 15-month-old daughter in a baby carriage. But that tenuous peace reigned up until the evening of June 3, with the army blocked by crowds of civilians, who were urging the soldiers not to shoot at the protesters.

Throngs of citizens surrounding troops of the hated 27th Army and other soldiers at half a dozen intersections around Beijing were in a festive mood. Many couldn’t believe that the troops would open fire.

But Liu Xiaobo and his three friends felt that the students remaining on Tiananmen Square faced a real threat of being killed or wounded if they stayed there.

Negotiating safe passage

Munro wrote in his book Black Hands of Beijing, which he co-authored with George Black, that early in the morning on June 4, “on the government side every vestige of reason seemed to disappear. But in the end reason triumphed, after a fashion, among the protesters who held onto the square.”

And for that, he said, the four hunger strikers “could take the greatest credit.”

In the final predawn hours, the four went among the crowd, persuading demonstrators to surrender sticks, chains, and bottles, arguing with them that resistance was futile.

The four, says Munro, found “one 15-year-old with a machine gun, hidden among padded quilts, trained on the advancing army. The boy was “incoherent with grief. Someone said that the army had killed his brother. Liu, the professor who had recently returned from New York, took the gun and smashed it to pieces.”

Hou Dejian, a rock-star singer, and Zhou Dou, an economist, walked forward to the northern edge of the square, where they met with two officers, who identified themselves only as Commissar Ji and Commissar Gu.

After checking with their superiors, the officers laid down an ultimatum: The students and their civilian supporters had to leave unconditionally via the southeastern corner of the square, which had been left open.

Fortunately, students and supporters made it off the square, although some were later killed in confrontations with the troops once they headed west and north.

In his introduction to a book of selected essays and poems written by Liu Xiaobo titled No Enemies, No Hatred, China expert Perry Link says that it’s impossible to say how many lives were saved by the compromise that Liu and his colleagues negotiated with the military. I think it’s safe to say that it was in the hundreds.

The authorities arrested Liu for the role he had played at Tiananmen, accused him of being a “black hand behind a counterrevolutionary riot,” and sent him to prison for more than a year and a half.

Liu became famous, mostly outside of China because of Chinese censorship, for his unwavering courage, his devotion to using peaceful means to achieve democracy, and as Perry Link described it, “his habit of writing free from fear.”

Liu also showed great courage in the way he dealt with Charter 08. As Link points out, the idea for Charter 08 didn’t originate with Liu, but when he began helping with it, his efforts were crucial.

His most courageous effort, says Link, was to present himself as the leading sponsor of the document. “He was already known as the most prominent ‘dissident’ inside China,” according to Link. “Taking primary responsibility for this text would only put him more in the government’s spotlight and at greater risk for punishment.”

As Link also notes, “the courage of Liu Xiaobo from the 1990s on cannot be separated from his wife Liu Xia,” a poet and photographer to whom Liu Xiaobo dedicated many poems.

Liu Xia has been kept under house arrest and police surveillance in recent years, cut off from contact with the outside world. But she never wavered in her support for Liu Xiaobo, who considered her an inspiration and spiritual companion.

Dan Southerland is RFA’s founding executive editor.