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.
“Among the great nations of the world, China, alone, still clings to an authoritarian political way of life,” said the Charter, translated into English by California-Riverside East Asian Studies Professor Perry Link.
“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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.