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Liu Xiaobo, 1955-2017

A ChinaFile Conversation

When news this morning reached us that Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo had died, we invited all past contributors to the ChinaFile Conversation to reflect on his life and on his death. Liu died, still in state-custody, eight years into his 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” through his writing. He was suffering from late-stage liver cancer, and had requested the opportunity to travel overseas to receive treatment. Chinese authorities denied that request. This week our Conversation is an open platform for reflections on Liu’s writing, his place in history, his treatment by the Chinese state, and his legacy, as well as for reminiscences of a more personal nature. —The Editors

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In order to challenge a repressive regime like the one in China today—a regime that demands comprehensive control of society and resorts to extreme brutality if it perceives a threat to itself—a person needs to make a judgment that speaking the truth is more important than personal safety. Dozens of Chinese in recent decades have accepted those stakes, have persisted in speaking honestly in public, and have suffered dire consequences.

Liu Xiaobo stood out within this courageous group because of his unflagging determination. He went to prison four times, yet none of these punishments deflected him in the slightest from his view of the truth or from his willingness to express it. Three related events during the years 2008 to 2010 turned him China’s most prominent dissident: his sponsorship of the citizens’ manifesto called “Charter 08,” which is the only public document since the Communist revolution in 1949 that calls for an end to one-Party rule; an 11-year prison sentence that resulted mainly from the publication of the Charter; and the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, which came when it did because of the long prison sentence.

Intellectually, Liu was one of those unusual people who can look at human life from the broadest of perspectives and reason about it from first principles. His keen intellect noticed things that others also look at, but do not see. He was deeply erudite on a variety of topics in history and literature, both Eastern and Western, ancient and modern. His remarkable habit of writing free from fear was so natural and routine that it seemed almost genetic, almost something he himself could not stop. Most Chinese writers today, including many of the best, write with political caution in the backs of their minds and with a shadow hovering over their fingers as they pass across a keyboard. How should I couch things? What topics should I not touch? What indirection should I use? Liu Xiaobo did none of this. With him, it was all there. What he thought, he wrote.

The combination of Charter 08 and the Nobel Prize seemed, for a time, to open a new alternative for China. Chinese citizens had long been accustomed to the periodic alternations between “more liberal” and “more conservative” tendencies in Communist rule, as if those described the outer limits within which one could think, but Charter 08 removed blinkers and showed there could be another way to be modern Chinese. It was hard to find Chinese people who disagreed with the Charter once they read it, and this potential for contagion was clearly the regime’s reason for suppressing it. Today, as the severe tightening of controls on Chinese society that has come during the last few years under the rule of Xi Jinping has pushed China in the opposite direction from what Charter 08 called for, the question arises, “Is the Charter dead? Was the effort in vain?”

The question is difficult, but my answer would be no. The movement has been crushed but its ideas have not been. The government’s assiduous, unremitting, and very expensive efforts to repress anything that resembles the ideas in Charter 08 is evidence enough that the men who rule are quite aware of the continuing potential of the ideas to spread.

Liu Xiaobo has been compared to Nelson Mandela, Vaclav Havel, and Aung San Suu Kyi, each of whom accepted prison as the price for conceiving and pursuing more humane governance in their homelands. But Mandela, Havel, and Suu Kyi all lived to see release from the beastly regimes that repressed them, and Liu Xiaobo did not. Does this mean his place in history will fall short of theirs? Is success of a movement necessary in order for its leader to be viewed as heroic?

Perhaps. It may be useful, though, to compare Liu Xiaobo and China’s President Xi Jinping. The two differ in age by only two years. During Mao’s Cultural Revolution both missed school and were banished to remote places. Xi used the time to begin building a resume that would allow him, by riding the coattails of his elite-Communist father, to vie one day for supreme power; Liu used the time to read on his own and learn to think for himself. One mastered the skullduggery and sycophancy that a person needs into order to rise within a closed bureaucracy; the other learned to challenge received wisdom of every kind, keeping for himself only the ideas that could pass the test of rigorous independent examination. For one of them, value was measured by power and position; for the other, by moral worth. Today, after their final standoff, one has “won,” the other “lost”. But two hundred years from now, who will remember the names of the tyrants who sent Mandela, Havel, and Suu Kyi to jail? Will the glint of Liu Xiaobo’s incisive intellect be remembered, or the cardboard mediocrity of Xi’s?

* * *

Before Liu Xiaobo died of liver cancer in a prison ward in a Shenyang hospital, he asked for safe passage for himself, his wife, and his brother-in-law to go to Germany or the U.S. The two Western governments agreed, but the Chinese government, saying Liu was already receiving the best possible medical care and was too weak to travel, did not.

Until then, Liu had always rejected suggestions that he leave China, primarily because dissidents who leave China lose credibility at home. Moreover, Liu had made it his personal mission to show exactly what happens, right to the last detail, when an independent thinker confronts an authoritarian regime.

We do not know why he changed his position in his last few days, but we can guess at the reasons, and I have two guesses. One is the obvious one: he was critically ill and transfer abroad might have been the only chance, however slight, to save his life. Second—and I think this reason is the more likely—he knew his death was imminent and wanted to spend the last of his energies to help his beloved and long-suffering wife Liu Xia, who has been held under house arrest for the last seven years (even though formally charged with nothing) and who has had bouts with severe depression, to get out of China.

But if Liu’s reasoning cannot be known, there can be no doubt about the reasoning of his captors: their concerns had little to do with medical care and much to do with preventing Liu Xiaobo from speaking his mind one last time. What did he see, as he lay dying, for a world in which China’s beastly dictatorship continues to grow? China’s rulers are no doubt relieved to see that Liu’s answers to that question are, with his life itself, now sealed in eternity.

We know very little—almost nothing really—about how or even whether China’s senior leaders think about the activists and intellectuals they lock up, sometimes for years at a time. As with so many things, a wall of silence surrounds Zhongnanhai, ensuring that the world will not know whether the men at the top of the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) hierarchy feel any sadness, or perhaps the smallest twinge of shame, over the lives that they have interrupted, or even broken. Do they feel any regret when an activist lawyer emerges from prison deeply damaged, unable to speak or form thoughts as clearly as they once did? And what about when someone pays the ultimate price—does the news of death in detention cause them to pause, even for a moment, to reflect on what they have done?

Liu Xiaobo’s death, on July 13, 2017 at the age of 61, was likely known to the denizens of Zhongnanhai even before the news was broadcast around the world. No doubt the senior leadership received regular reports on his status from prison officials in Shenyang. It is possible that they learned of Liu Xiaobo’s cancer even before he did. Chinese President Xi Jinping presents himself to the Party, to his country, and to the world as a man of unflappable self-confidence and resoluteness, unburdened by self-doubt. And, as he has presided over a brutal years-long crackdown on civil society and rights activists, as well as a wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign, he has made clear that he is willing to shed blood in pursuit of his political vision. But as the news of Liu Xiaobo’s death flashed on television screens around the world, I had to wonder: did even he find himself feeling a flicker of despair? Did he ask himself, even in passing, is it really worth it?

Much has been written about Liu Xiaobo’s own resoluteness, his own stubborn bravery in the face of repression. Most men would have given up after only a short spell in that Shenyang prison. They would have sent a signal to Beijing that they were ready to make a deal that would free them from the misery, from the intellectual death of a prison cell. One can only imagine how painful it must have been for a mind as brilliant and piercing as Liu Xiaobo’s to be denied regular access to reading materials, and even to pen and paper. (With his death, the world loses the chance to read Liu Xiaobo’s own blistering, sulfuric, and darkly eloquent firsthand account of his more than eight years in jail, which may be a key reason why Beijing refused to allow him to seek treatment outside of the country, even in his last days: they didn’t want even small shards of that story to get out.) His courage in standing up for his beliefs knew no bounds, and stands as a model for all of us in these cramped, politically shallow, and self-absorbed times.

What can be done now? Senior officials in Washington, London, Berlin, and Brussels need to escalate the pressure on Beijing to allow Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, and her brother, Liu Hui, to finally leave China. This was Liu Xiaobo’s dying wish, one that he tragically did not live to see. Sadly, Liu Xia will likely never know a single day of peace for as long as she resides in Beijing. According to friends, the extensive and heavy-handed restrictions on her freedom have already taken a toll, as has the sustained harassment of her relatives by the authorities. She should be allowed to leave, and to build a new life in exile, if she so chooses. She should be allowed to grieve quietly and privately, without having to deal with government minders at her side, and thugs outside her door.

But international engagement—both governmental and non-governmental—can’t end there. Many top activists remain in prison, including the rights campaigner Guo Feixiong and the Uighur economist and intellectual Ilham Tohti. The international community should renew their calls for their immediate release. As it happens, the prominent scholar, rights lawyer, and social activist Xu Zhiyong is scheduled to be released from prison on Saturday after serving a four-year sentence for disturbing public order. The international community should demand that his rights as a free citizen be fully respected: all too often in recent years, high-profile activists like Xu have been moved from jail to a highly restrictive form of house arrest. The all-too-obvious goal is to ensure that they are cut off from their activist friends, and from activism itself, almost as fully as they were in prison. Such restrictions should not be applied to Xu, or to other activists scheduled to be released in the months and years ahead.

Above and beyond any renewed rights diplomacy undertaken by Western governments, Liu Xiaobo’s passing should lead to a rethink of many of the assumptions that all of us have held about China’s trajectory. It seems clear now that the C.C.P. has fully rejected a moderate reformist path, and instead is moving toward a future in which Party oversight and control is much more encompassing, much more robust. In this context, the role of rights diplomacy by Western governments becomes all the more vital: as Chinese voices face ever greater restrictions, all of us in the international community need to push our own governments to raise concerns with Beijing. The moral obligation to do so has never been more clear.

As news of Liu’s death spreads inside China—as it inevitably will, despite the Party’s best efforts to maintain message discipline—we will learn more about Liu’s influence inside China, both among intellectuals and among the broader public. I suspect that we will learn that his influence is deeper and more wide-ranging than we had thought. Even so, the reactions among the Party elite will remain a mystery: if the past several days are any guide, the Party’s only public comments will be callous, dismissive, and disrespectful. The question remains, however: at moments like these, if more mundane human reactions like sorrow fail him, does Xi Jinping nonetheless wonder how history will remember him, and how differently it will remember Liu Xiaobo?

The death of Liu Xiaobo is a strange thing: On one hand, the entire world paid attention to it and millions of people called for his freedom; but on the other, he died in isolation from the world. Over the past 10 years, except for guards, fellow prisoners, and several family members under close surveillance, he was not allowed to see anyone else. At the end, he hoped that he and his family could breathe some air of freedom before his death, and he expressed this to the German and American doctors Chinese authorities allowed to consult on his case. Liu Xiaobo is the only Nobel Prize Winner to have died in prison since World War II, and this was what he wanted most urgently. Helping him fulfill this wish became a responsibility of Western democratic society.

I have noticed that various forces including more than 150 Nobel Prize Winners, more than 60 Czech Charter ’77 signers, human right officials at the U.N., diplomatic agencies of many countries, and non-governmental human rights organizations all called on the Chinese administration to free Liu. Yet, Western leaders including Trump and Merkel were silent. At the 2017 G-20 summit held in Hamburg, Xi Jinping was still warmly welcomed with applause and smiles; he even seemed to be the leader among leaders.

Apparently, rescue efforts for Liu employed the traditional “quiet diplomacy” approach. This approach set itself up for failure and only humiliated Liu’s would-be rescuers. I recently wrote about this phenomenon in Chinese.

In my article, I introduced a book published in 2014 by German scholar Katrin Kinzelbach: The EU’s Human Rights Dialogue with China: Quiet Diplomacy and its Limits. Kinzelbach tracks human right dialogues between the E.U. and China from 1995 through 2010, by examining a variety of documents including internal memos and by interviewing many stakeholders covering more than 20 U.N. member-countries and all former and current chairs. The study concluded that “quiet diplomacy” has had only a very limited positive influence on China’s human rights. It not only failed to achieve its expected goals, but also made the Chinese government trample human rights more overtly, treat human rights conversations as perfunctory, and even counter queries, criticisms, and suggestions. Two weeks ago, 10 human right organizations including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Civil Force, The International Campaign for Tibet, Human Rights in China, International Service for Human Rights, and The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization published a joint statement, calling on the E.U. to pause its human rights dialogues with China. “Instead of a forum for promoting rights, the EU-China human rights dialogue has become a cheap alibi for EU leaders to avoid thorny rights issues in other high level discussions,” the statement said.

The Chinese government would rather the entire world watch Liu Xiaobo dying in its hands than give him even a tiny amount of freedom and the chance to live a little longer. This is new evidence that “quiet diplomacy” has failed. It shows the degree to which, when leaders of the Western developed countries fear the Chinese Communist Party, they too abandon the principles of modern civilization including human rights, freedom, and democracy, making their secret diplomacy nothing more than an act of public self-humiliation. I hope the death of Liu Xiaobo wakes them up.

After the Norwegians awarded Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, I decided to add a couple of texts by him to the compulsory readings for my Bachelor’s course in Chinese language at Lund University in Sweden. My Bachelor’s level students, as it happens, need to improve their ability to decode the meaning of Chinese current affairs prose, and prefer to do so by reading the writings of individuals they have heard of rather than those of some anonymous Xinhua commentator. Hence, in 2011 and for a few years thereafter, I had them read and discuss Liu’s “The U.S.-U.K. Freedom Coalition Must be Victorious” (《美英自由联盟必胜》) and “Treating Crimes as Crimes: Second Comment on the Prisoner Abuse Case” (《把罪恶当罪恶——虐囚案评论之二》). Needless to say, the Peace Prize winner’s spirited defense of the U.S.-led war against Iraq confused my students no end, since what he wrote seemed so incompatible with his iconic media status as a human rights advocate and committed fighter for democracy. After a few years, I decided to remove Liu’s two essays from the reading list. To my students today, the 2003 invasion of Iraq that he had insisted was ever so justified and just is already history. Soon Liu may well be too.

The Analects and the Mencius are full of lore on men of learning giving advice to rulers. In the social philosophy codified in these texts, educated men had a unique virtue of moral fidelity (zhong 忠)—as distinguished from the virtue of obedience (xiao 孝) attached to women, children, and uneducated men. The scholars knew right from wrong, and they were obligated to speak for right no matter the consequences. This licensed them to act as judges over their inferiors and remonstrators to the powerful.

Two thousand years ago, the Han empire, in one of its grand gestures toward the primacy of the humane values taught by Confucius, appointed a board of erudite censors who would assess the words and deeds of the emperors. We know from many instances in China’s imperial history that this was not merely a gesture, but could occasionally override the erratic behaviors of sovereigns. The censors may have been looking to keep morality in government, but the rulers were looking to keep themselves in power. Astrologers (in pre-imperial times indistinguishable from erudite political advisors) lined the throne up with the heavens, censors lined the throne up with Heaven.

But it was also in the Han period that the dangers of free-lance moralizing about the state were limned in Sima Qian’s Shiji (史記, The Records of the Grand Historian). Sima himself had run afoul of Emperor Han Wudi by admonishing him on his treatment of an unfortunate general and his family (as well as the family that got mistaken for the general’s family). The emperor demanded that Sima choose between castration or death. He chose castration and used his borrowed time to create an anguished mirror of the history of educated men who lived up to their obligation to speak truth to power, and as an inevitable result were destroyed.

In later centuries, and in fact all the way to the end of the Qing period in 1912, thousands of men suffering for their acts of state criticism could look to the Shiji and see their own fates predicted and their motives justified. And after the end of the empire, intellectuals taking up the conscious burden of the morally educated man would be assassinated by warlords; incarcerated and executed by Japanese occupiers; publicly humiliated, economically purged, jailed and executed by the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.).

It would be easy for us, and not completely unreasonable, to see Liu Xiaobo in this tradition, but it is unlikely he would want us to. It would seem to him just another stereotype imposed upon Chinese experience by foreigners who know a little about it but not enough. In Liu’s eyes, Confucianism in all its varieties in China was always based on an assumption of cosmic order and an intention to use the state to impose order on earth. This assumption was the foundation of its sanctimony, and its investment of special prerogatives in the scholars was the wellspring of its hostility to democracy. Liu repeatedly criticized intellectuals who consciously and more often unconsciously replicated the cosmological determinism and moral hierarchies of the traditional philosophers.

Liu was a prophet of unpredictability. He thought the surprising wealth and power of Europe in the 19th century and of the United States in the 20th century were products of democracy, which was itself based upon unpredictability—of intuition, of idealization, of speech, of productive responses to adversity, of popular sentiment.

The “West” he envisaged had never in the modern period closed itself completely to being surprised. He looked at divergent trends in Western philosophy and arts, and did not like them all—those with the most kinship to traditional Chinese certitudes, as in the case of Hegel, he disliked, and those willing to integrate elements of the unknowable, as in the case of Kant, he preferred. But on the whole he found that the “West” had protected unpredictability with free speech and democratic institutions, and from them had come wealth, power, and an unparalleled level of human happiness.

Living as an unpredictable, Liu found, had difficulties in the West. There, as in China, it was easy to take his comments out of context and simplify their meaning in unattractive ways. He encountered academic establishments who did not like his counterintuitive opinions, journalists who considered that the content of his thought might qualify his right to express it, friends and acquaintances who were discomfited by unexpected behaviors. But the fact that Liu found aspects of the West inconsistent with his ideal only reinforced his belief that the genius of the West still lay in its embrace of unpredictability—that is, democracy. He wanted to die in that place.

Today, Liu’s legacy is living in the city of Hong Kong, the only city in China where he has been legally and publicly mourned. Liu was infamous for commenting on the exigencies of colonialism that had made Hong Kong the open, progressive city that it was at the turn of the 21st century. Today, Hong Kong is the dangerously unpredictable element upon which the C.C.P. continually attempts to impose order. As Liu saw it, the burden upon Chinese intellectuals to aid in the imposition of order is the greatest single threat to China’a future, and Hong Kong’s unpredictability the beacon of where humanity can truly go when it defends its freedoms.

When I first read the work of Liu Xiaobo after the release of Charter 08, and later when I translated some of his poetry and prose for the collection No Enemies, No Hatred, I shared his optimism that China was changing, and a day was coming when the Charter’s simple, practical advice to reject authoritarianism in government would become a core tenet of Chinese political culture. Nine years later, those hopes have temporarily faded, but I find Liu’s life and work vastly more crucial as I decide what to do and who to be from day to day.

Rather than the blueprint of a future state based on human dignity and respect for human rights, the life’s work of Liu Xiaobo in our present context strikes me as the map of a free life lived under oppression. This is not an abstract question for an American university professor like me: I have been having, as have many of my colleagues who study the culture of the People’s Republic of China, moments of strong and uncomfortable familiarity with recent stories from U.S. politics. The loss of habeas corpus and other civil rights after 9/11, the unexamined and sometimes inappropriate lionization of Barack Obama, and a widely shared refusal to believe in the limits of presidential power have now culminated in a Trump administration that defies the law, steals from the poor, and revels in what Dr. Liu might call a “thuggish and bellicose” ethnonationalism. Those who understand our current situation best are those who have lived and written under and about autocracy: if you are unconvinced, turn back to the gifted China correspondent Evan Osnos’ uncanny set of predictions about Donald Trump’s first term, written back when many found today’s America unthinkable.

Liu Xiaobo proposes, I believe, two important tenets of opposition to the authoritarianism that now walks in the halls of world power. The first and most important is his insistence that the struggle be spiritual. Calling Chinese elites to account, himself included, he writes: “It is hard to find any shame or guilt in us. We have yet to learn how to draw spiritual meaning from our encounters with suffering…” Having been educated, among other things, as a technician of culture and a theorist of literature, I find this demand both deeply uncomfortable and absolutely necessary. A struggle driven by belief can be wrong or misguided—Liu changed political positions several times over the course of his life, as do we all—but it does not rationalize or excuse its own failures, and it is resistant to bribery and flattery. From the perspective of the autocratic ruler, the citizen is a productive unit, a loyalist or opponent, an instrument; the free citizen must by contrast insist upon and foster the core of her own independence. It is worth remembering, as Thomas Kellogg points out, that Liu could have denounced his own ideas and improved his treatment at the hands of the government at any time, but he declined to do so in part because he had built himself a spirit that would not allow it. That building was done in poems, in personal relationships, and through the study of literature—it was spirit that provided the moral force that animated Charter 08, and the toughness that the aftermath required.

The second thing that brings me back to Liu’s life and work is his insistence on the truth. His writing puts it best:

If every person were to speak just one sentence of truth on major issues that affect society, the dictatorship would fail, no matter how brutal it might be. As resistance to public mendacity builds among the people, drop by drop, eventually the drops will come together to form a flood, and a dictatorship that needs lies in order to maintain itself will find it hard to continue.

I am also not comfortable with monolithic ideas of the truth—a lot of the study of literature centers around rooting out single truth-systems in favor of competing and diverse systems of value—so it is as strange to me to be moved by a simple advocacy of truth-telling as it is to talk about tending to one’s spirit. But Liu is not talking about shared truths, he is talking about personal ones, those that systems of enticement conspire to silence in us. Little pressures to prevaricate or euphemize about inequality, race, gender, and so much else accumulate into a culture in which we use our speech to enrich ourselves, and those who can’t speak simply suffer. The Trump administration requires mendacity because it profits from suffering. When we speak truthfully, it does not matter much if our truths contradict one another: the goal is not an end to cacophony, but a community in which words matter and we can trust each other to say what we mean. Honest people make a hard target for dictators and other con men. They certainly never succeeded in breaking down Dr. Liu.

The conversation we have in these weeks will, appropriately, center on the debate between Liu Xiaobo’s work and the Chinese Communist Party’s ideas and practices. My suggestion is that as we do so, we don’t overlook his power and desire to change the rest of us, as well.

“Many young people don’t know him. Many others pretend they’ve already forgotten him.” As news spread this week of the death of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, even oblique posts like this one, making only the haziest of references to the writer, were expunged from Chinese social networks. “The man has passed, but the ideals are not destroyed,” said another post, made to Weibo at around 1:00 a.m. on July 14 and deleted two hours later. Even the sparse sentiment, “Rest in peace” was too much for China’s trigger-happy censors. But the obsessive and cruel efforts of Chinese authorities to erase Liu Xiaobo and everything he stands for only underscore the power of his ideas — and every act of obliteration speaks to the bankruptcy of the Party’s own “mainstream” values. The lone “mainstream” Chinese voice to speak on Liu Xiaobo’s passing was that of the belligerent Global Times newspaper, which again could only speak of effacement and negation. “One can create some waves against the current,” the paper said, “but history will eventually wash away these traces.” The fact is, of course, that the changes Liu Xiaobo and other drafters of Charter 08 advocated never moved against “the current” of Chinese society and politics. As one of the Charter’s signers, Bao Tong, noted in his July 14 tribute to Liu, the document accorded with China’s Constitution in its calls for freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly and association: “We called only for its faithful implementation — there was nothing else. Under normal circumstances, all of it might be accepted by the authorities, and there was no reason to object.” In the face of attempts to vanish him, Liu Xiaobo is an indelible reminder of China’s broken promises — the empty chair that in due time history will fill, whatever China’s leaders do or do not say.

Late last month, on the eve of the World Economic Forum’s annual summer meeting in China, Liu Xiaobo was released from prison for cancer care. He was sent to a hospital not far away from the World Economic Forum venue, essentially to die.

Despite the forum’s tagline “committed to improving the state of the world,” I knew it was highly unlikely anyone at the meeting would make any public statements about the Nobel Laureate, who had sacrificed his life in pursuit of the Forum’s stated goal.

I felt complicit.

The World Economic Forum self-censors on issues that China might take as an affront. There are no sessions on thorny political issues, or topics that don’t sit well with the host nation. When the annual “Summer Davos” meeting was launched a decade earlier, I heard foreign journalists talk about the compromises the Forum was taking to put down stakes in China. Now, the self-censorship Chinese authorities have so skillfully cultivated has been normalized. It is taken for granted.

I made a point of mentioning the fate of Liu Xiaobo—and the silence of the forum—in conversations with the smattering of people I engaged with. They included an advisor to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a mover and shaker at the Sundance Institute, and a local youth working at the venue, who surprisingly was a fan of Liu’s writing. He thought Liu’s criticism of the government was spot on and fair, and was shocked to learn Liu Xiaobo had been locked away ever since he was a young teen.

There were plenty of sessions over the three-day meeting on human values—empathy, fairness, governance, how to avoid harm with new technologies like artificial intelligence. A honcho at one of China’s top Internet companies emphatically stated AI should embody “human values.” I did not hear anyone utter a word about Liu Xiaobo, or how his fate relates to these conversations.

If everyone at the Forum—and everyone engaging with this discussion—were to invoke Liu Xiaobo and the values he represents in every relevant conversation, would the world be a different place?

Maybe just for or a moment, a fleeting instant, we all would have liked to be Liu Xiaobo, or at least a little like him—hero of Tiananmen, paladin of human rights, martyr against an almighty authoritarian power.

It is the foundation of man’s life. It is the Chinese story of the Monkey King journeying to the distant west to fetch the knowledge of merciful Buddha to war-torn east, and thus brings peace to the central plains after centuries of slaughter; it is the Greek myth of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods to give it to the earthlings even at the cost of his eternal torture.

We don’t know if the sacrifice, martyrdom of Liu Xiaobo for democracy, will bring greater freedom to the Chinese people. They seem too distracted with making money to be bothered with Liu’s hazy ideas of democracy. But in the world and in China nobody can but be deeply touched by his suffering, and we all wished we could have been like him, but we didn’t have his saintly stubborn determination.

Yes, let’s be realistic and cynical, politically: for the internal peace and prosperity of China, Liu’s demise will be soon shelved and forgotten. Few or no Chinese want to be reminded why they didn’t heed his screams and appeals.

But his death while imprisoned will be a sore wound in the soul of China, because it was so useless, so easy to avoid, so hurtful to the thin skin of Chinese leadership in a very delicate moment.

We will try to sweep his demise under the carpet, because there is nothing else we can do, because Chinese issues are too complex to be bogged down by a death, no matter how senseless or heroic, because we want do go on with our lives and our goals to do business or war with China. In all of this, Liu Xiaobo’s life and death is an impediment.

Yet we know that, without full repentance and full forgiveness, his fully confronting what happened in Tiananmen 1989, the sin of his death will stay with us, because we did nothing or too little—unlike him. Or so we fear now that pall of his ghost will spread over our heads as a warning or an inspiration.

In her remarks for a 2009 award ceremony honoring her husband, Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia wrote, “I am not a vassal of Liu Xiaobo.” Yes, she has played an inextricable role in the chronicle of her husband’s imprisonment and his global prominence as a face of Chinese dissidence. She has been his artistic collaborator, one of his few visitors in prison, and, with his death, the bearer of his legacy. But no one should lose sight of her singular status as a fiercely independent advocate, an elegiac storyteller, and an enduring survivor of the seven-year isolation imposed on her by the Chinese government.

Liu Xia has been held in unlawful house arrest since October 2010, when Liu Xiaobo, serving an 11-year prison sentence on charges of “inciting subversion,” was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Detained without charge or trial, she has been stripped of communication with the outside world and denied adequate medical care.

Liu Xia continued writing poetry and reading fervently—for her, an act “like breathing,” which had become a way to “meander in the world.” Her work has been shared publicly through pieces smuggled out by friends. In 2013, three requests from her were shared online: to see a doctor, to have a job, and for her and Liu Xiaobo to be allowed to read the letters they sent each other. From their separate confines, they had continued sharing that which had first connected them in the 1980s—poetry—despite being denied the chance to read the other’s words. “Xiaobo and I have accumulated hundreds of such poems, which were born of the conversations between our souls,” Liu Xia wrote, a year before she was detained.

Their writing expresses the unique agony of their situation, but also, at times, a shared optimism—both for the future of democracy in China and for their partnership. “Even if I were crushed into powder, I would still use my ashes to embrace you,” Liu Xiaobo wrote in a statement for his 2009 sentencing, later read as his Nobel Lecture in absentia. From the Shenyang hospital in northeastern China where he died, Liu Xiaobo handwrote his final piece, lines of poetry for Liu Xia, which will be published alongside a collection of her photographs.

Theirs is a poetry of transcendence, a means to eclipse the constraints of an authoritarian regime:

Before you enter the grave
Don’t forget to write me with your ashes
Do not forget to leave your address in the nether world.

Reported to be suffering from severe depression, Liu Xia wrote in 2011:

For me the future is
a closed window
where night has no end
and nightmares can’t be lifted.I want to be in light.

Concerns for Liu Xia have mounted over recent weeks, as even her mourning has been carried out under the government’s strict surveillance and control.

She has not been allowed to speak independently, and friends and relatives have been refused contact. After announcing Liu Xiaobo’s cremation and sea burial—a move seen as a speedy effort to deny his friends a voice in the process and a site for a memorial—a government spokesman repeated the claim being made in state media: “Liu Xia is free.”

In 2013, Liu Xia was allowed to attend her brother’s trial, one of her only public appearances. Upon leaving the courthouse, she shouted to reporters a message to be remembered and echoed today: “I am not free. If they tell you I’m free, tell them I’m not free.”

Liu Xiaobo will properly be remembered for candidly and correctly adducing the fundamental ills in China’s society and its system of governance. But in the months leading up to the fateful publication of Charter 08, Liu also showed himself an eager and quick student of the major social movement of his time: the Chinese Internet. Liu wrote that its “contribution … to freedom of expression in China [has] been immense, indeed hard to overstate.”

The Internet was also a personal boon to Liu, who wrote of discovering and quickly mastering it in 1999. It “helped my writing to erupt like a geyser. Now I can even live off what I write,” he marveled. References to online media suffused his later writings, as he parsed netizen reaction to government failures and chortled at the “practically zero credibility” of government narratives on the modern, social web.

The Internet was also rocket fuel for Charter 08. “Publication,” of course, now means something entirely different from what it meant 20 years ago, and the obviousness of the fact sometimes obscures our view of it. But the Charter’s reach—and its concomitant danger to the ruling Party—depended on modern communications technology. In his 2006 essay “Long Live the Internet,” Liu describes in depth the exhausting process of assembling signatories to open letters in an earlier era; he would bicycle around Beijing for a full day just to bring in a “modest harvest.” But editing and spreading Charter 08 was a totally different matter, and after launching online with 303 signatures, the document amassed over 10,000 additional signatures before the government shut it down. One can only imagine its possible impact had it been instead released, say, some weekday midnight on Weibo in 2012, a time of day when censors were asleep and a year when Chinese social media was touching its zenith as a public force.

In February 2008, Liu penned an essay, “Imprisoning People for Words and the Power of Public Opinion,” which revealed him to be an Internet optimist, perhaps even an Internet Utopianist. While Liu was unflinching in seeking and sharing his own truth, he showed himself in this essay to be far more forgiving of the compromises of others. In a remarkable passage, he wrote:

In China today, control on expression by an authoritarian regime and pressure for greater latitude from an increasingly pluralistic society are both realities. … Among the forces pushing for more freedom, there are heroic acts that challenge government power, but these are rare; much more common, indeed the mainstream of the resistance trend, are the low-key, practical ways in which people everywhere keep making small differences. These people have the principle of free expression in mind, but they are also tactically astute. They know how to get things done even as they devise clever ways to protect themselves. They are aware that the political regime is not going to change any time soon, so do what they can in their immediate environments. To purists, they can seem to be making too many compromises, but there can be no doubt they are a major part of the overall quest. The best hope for the future lies in the way civil society on the Internet continually eats away, inch by inch, at the government controls.

Liu’s enthusiasm for the Internet—what he saw as its ability to countervail official narratives, cohere public opinion, and mint “‘stars’ outside the Party-state system”—not to mention his earlier warnings in 2002 about “thuggish language that unabashedly celebrates violence, race hatred, and warmongering passion” online—were keen contemporary observations. But precisely because the web was the “best hope” for civil society, it became the central government’s biggest target. Starting in late 2013, new rules and regulations and waves of vicious crackdowns have combined to silence erstwhile social media “stars” who dared question Beijing’s dictat. Meanwhile, propagandists have become far more web-savvy, and China’s Internet has become so suffused with irresistible distractions that many don’t notice what’s missing, or think about what the Internet circa 2017 could have become. In a final if predictable insult, web users were unable openly to mourn Liu’s passing online—because his name was, of course, blocked on Weibo.

Liu’s belief in the power of the web as a check on government power may yet prove prescient. These are still the early days of humanity’s Internet epoch. For now, Beijing’s use and threats of force have distorted online life in the same way they have distorted civic life. But new technologies will emerge, and with them, new possibilities for daring and imaginative visionaries to change China again. The question is who will possess the courage and persistence to answer the call. Who, in other words, will be the next Liu Xiaobo?

The only Chinese Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Liu Xiaobo, died of cancer in a hospital, surrounded by plainclothes police agents who do not allow him the least moment of intimacy with his wife. The Chinese government refused to let him leave the country to be cured although he has clearly expressed the wish to do so.

What made the Chinese communist party that rules the world’s second largest power so fearful of a dying man?

Whereas Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao let prominent dissidents such as Wei Jingsheng, Wang Dan and Chen Guangcheng go to the United States to undergo treatment, Hu and Xi Jinping not only consistently refused to send Liu Xiaobo abroad, but also put his wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest so that nobody could hear the couple’s voices.

This attitude has considerably tarnished China’s image: the only Nobel Peace Prize Laureate to have died in prison was the pacifist Carl Von Ossetski and that happened…. in Hitler’s Germany. So why have the Chinese leaders consistently refused to make a humanitarian gesture?

From the time he interrupted a successful academic visit to Europe and the United States to take part in the 1989 occupation of Tiananmen Square, Liu Xiaobo, then a very famous literary critic, dedicated his life to the fight for a democratic China. Although his writings have been banned for publication since the June 4th massacre, they do circulate in the country, and have been widely discussed in intellectual circles.

Liu was a very prolific writer: after he was released from jail in 1991, he wrote countless articles on current affairs, first in Hong Kong magazines, then on the Internet, which he dubbed “a gift from God to China,” and many more philosophical or theoretical texts analysing the regime and the evolution of Chinese society.

But one of the strongest aspects of Liu’s thought, that might inspire the future generations of opponents, is his wholehearted commitment to non-violence, a result of his understanding of Mao’s period:

“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. I hope therefore to be able to transcend my personal vicissitudes in understanding the development of the state and changes in society, to counter the hostility of the regime with the best of intentions, and defuse hate with love.”

His reflection on the development of civil society (The Free China of the Future Will Emerge from the People) and the role it can play to erode Party control, the necessity for citizens to think for themselves and develop their autonomy is a distinguishing feature of his thought. Liu was an heir to the May 4th movement, which saw intellectuals fighting to “tear down Confucius’s shop” (打倒孔家店, dadao Kongjia dian) and asking for “democracy and science.” For Liu, a return to traditional culture couldn’t be a solution for China. The most important for literature is preserve its autonomy and writers should not, for strategic reasons, keep silent on certain subjects. If intellectuals are to contribute to the establishment of an autonomous public sphere, they have to cut the umbilical chord that links them to the State. He has all along been unyielding in his conception of the intellectual, whose essence, he thinks, is critical thinking. In order for intellectuals to defend their right to exercise it, they should not be afraid of losing their freedom, or even their lives.

One of Liu’s legacies is definitely the importance for human beings of defending their autonomy, and their ability to pass judgment on the world they live in. Therefore, they shouldn’t spend their energy asking the State to reverse verdicts on historical events. During the 1989 movement, he denounced this Chinese trend: “Why do our fellow citizens feel so grateful towards reversal of verdicts? To send a righteous person to hell is an exorbitant privilege, to reverse the verdict is so too.”

But Liu’s thought and behavior were shaped by the 1989 pro-democracy movement, and all his actions were related to this event which shook China: “June 1989 was the major turning point in my fifty years on life’s road” he wrote, “the martyrs’ deaths have opened my eyes and now, each time I open my mouth, I wonder whether I am worthy of them.”

The massacre and the lessons it conveyed were a determining factor in Liu’s political behavior. They led him to a new path for the struggle for democracy in China. Whereas when he started to write, Liu Xiaobo had been critical of the “sense of mission”(使命感, shiming gan) of the Confucian literati, the June Fourth Massacre changed his worldview. The sacrifice of ordinary citizens that night convinced him that the fight for democracy was inseparable from ethics. “It is only because of the large mobilization grounded in ethics that the 1989 pro-democracy movement has become the people’s movement aimed at transforming China which has bred the biggest hope.” And this movement did not only involve intellectuals and members of the elite, rather: “The greatness of the 1989 pro-democracy movement is that it has revealed the courage, the sense of justice and the spirit of sacrifice of the silent majority.”

This historical event led him to question the role of the elites in the fight for democracy, and insist on adopting an ethical stand to fight a corrupt regime: “In China, almost everybody has the courage to challenge ethics, whereas one can find almost nobody who has the moral courage to challenge reality.” He openly criticized the “liberal intellectuals” (ziyou zhishifenzi, 自由知识分子) who glorify “negative liberty” and denounce many aspects of the 1989 pro-democracy movement that they deem too radical. “When the famous members of the elite refuse, at the most dangerous moment, to rise in order to defend their ethics and their conscience, when they refuse to pay the individual price, the masses do not have the duty to support them.”

These reflections on the lessons from 1989 finally led him to vehemently denounce the “philosophy of the pig” (猪哲学, zhu zhexue),—happiness defined as the possibility to enjoy a good life and to consume—as the strongest ally of the post-totalitarian regime. He was unsparing in his condemnation of his fellow citizens who prided themselves on denouncing the regime during dinner parties, but expressed their approval in public, as the Party has long abandoned the objective of conquering the hearts and minds of the people, and is totally satisfied with outward conformism.

Liu Xiaobo has taught his contemporaries that “living in truth” is a very efficient weapon to fight what he called a “post-totalitarian regime.” But was not only a philosophical conviction: for him, to “live in truth” also meant to organize petitions to denounce the abuse of the regime, be it the jailing of those who dare criticize it, or the suffering of migrant workers. His ability to liaise with the various generations of the opposition, from the older Party members such as Li Rui, through the intellectuals of the Reform generation such as Bao Zunxin, to post 1989 activists such as Yu Jie and Liu Di (Stainless Steel Mouse) or the civil rights lawyers has made him a central figure of this milieu. This might in part explain the government’s determination to silence him.

Liu Xiaobo’s might have died without ever recovering his freedom. But his legacy that we could sum up as follows: “live in truth, develop your autonomy, denounce injustice when you encounter it, and don’t be afraid” will continue to inspire those who are not satisfied with the “philosophy of the pig.” And they will, as he has done all his life, be determined to fight what he has called the enemy mentality:

“I still want to tell the regime that deprives me of my freedom: I stand by the belief I expressed twenty years ago in my June 2nd hunger strike declaration: I have no enemies, I have no hatred.”

For days after Liu Xiaobo died, I woke up every night in the middle of the night with one vivid memory or another playing in my head. There was Xiaobo dropping in to see me at the home of Gladys and Xianyi Yang in the Foreign Languages Press in Beijing (where I often stayed in the 80s), reciting his own essays on literature and philosophy word for word as he munched his way through whatever leftovers were on the kitchen table, barely pausing to chew. There he was at a birthday dinner for me at Donglaishun in 1987, cheerfully recounting his unsuccessful attempts to get a Beijing cake shop to decorate my birthday cake with the political slogan, ‘oppose bourgeois liberalisation.’ There we were arguing, me furiously exasperated at his absurd contention, brought up in conversation, that women were incapable of becoming top mathematicians or philosophers, him good-natured but stubborn. And of course, there were many scenes from 4 June 1989 when he, the singer Hou Dejian and others arrived late in the afternoon at the flat of the Australian cultural counsellor Nick Jose; we passed the next few days together before the Australians were evacuated and Xiaobo was arrested for the first time. I wrote about those fraught and crazy days in detail in my 2001 book The Monkey and the Dragon.

The last time I saw Xiaobo was around 1993 or 1994, although I wrote an essay about him when he was awarded the Nobel Prize. The news of his death left me feeling grief and sorrow. I felt heart-broken for his widow, Liu Xia, whom I first met when she was a young poet with long hair and an easy smile, married to another writer who was Xiaobo’s good friend. I last saw her in the early 90s as well.

Many others have already written here and elsewhere about Xiaobo’s writings, the tragic circumstances of his illness and death, and the hopes or otherwise for the democratic changes for which he so tirelessly advocated. The Chinese media has, in turn, published many splenetic attacks on both Xiaobo and his supporters in the west. Xiaobo’s prolific, colourful, provocative, and sometimes contrarian writings and pronouncements (including his famous comments on the usefulness of colonialism and his support for America’s military adventurism in Iraq and elsewhere) have provided his enemies with plenty of potent ammunition. Most people in China, and certainly most of the younger generation, would know Xiaobo, if they know him at all, through the distorted prism of official propaganda—they are unlikely to be sympathetic, perceiving him to be unpatriotic or even ‘anti-China’, and unaware of the greater context of his words and actions.

What then, will be the legacy of this complicated man, who was at once warm, funny, irritating, self-reflective, ardent, contradictory, intelligent and forthright, who inflamed some and impassioned others? Around the world, political conversations on all levels are rapidly devolving into spleenful rants in which neither side has much abiding interest in even listening to the other. Those with the power to shut down the other side, in this case the Chinese government, are doing so with whatever means are at their disposal, including censorship, arrests, lies and bullying (looking at you too, Donald Trump, Putin, Erdogan…). To my mind, if we want truly to honor Xiaobo, we need urgently, all of us, to work out ways of pulling the world back in the direction of civility. ‘Hatred,’ he famously declared at the time of his sentencing in 2009, ‘will corrupt a person’s intelligence and conscience. Enmity poisons the spirit of a people, incites savage life-and-death struggles, destroys a society’s tolerance and humanity and prevents a country from progressing towards freedom and democracy. That’s why I… respond to the enmity of the regime with the utmost goodwill, and to disarm hatred with love.’ No hatred, no enemies. I cannot think of an idea that has greater significance – if less application – in China and around the world, than this. Can we live up to it?

As you sail from the Central ferry piers out towards Hong Kong’s other major islands, the South China Sea opens up from the narrow strait of the Victoria Harbor. Huge cargo boats dot the landscape. Black smog plumes linger in the air, as the Hong Kong government still hasn’t found a way to legislate and regulate marine vessels emissions.

I stare out of the window of my ferry, trying to think what this strait must have looked like, some centuries ago. Today the harbor is narrower, after the endless reclamation that has created many real estate fortunes. And my impression of an open view is little more than that, as bridges and power stations and typhoon shelters interrupt the flat expanse of water in a way that was unthinkable to those who stared at this sea so long ago. Still, as China’s factories and Hong Kong’s lax regulations spread a brownish gray haze just on top of the horizon, I tell myself that today, as years ago, countless business-minded people have been attracted to this harbor from everywhere, making plans on the wealth that trade with China could generate.

Back in that past that I’m trying to visit with my thoughts, an emperor was sitting on a distant throne up north – and in Europe, rulers were being told of his extraordinary wisdom.

The water suggests two sets of parallel images that come back insistently. The recent ones are those that were broadcast from Shenyang on July 15, when Liu Xiaoguang, the elder brother of Liu Xiaobo, was dragged in front of a group of journalists for a sinister press conference. After a long statement in which the older Liu kept thanking the Party and the state, a screen behind him projected a few pictures of his brother. He was showed lying in a coffin as he was being prepared for a hasty cremation, and then, a “sea burial.” And photos of Liu Xia, his wife, looking ashen into the sea. This same sea I am watching from my boat, just many miles to the north, but this same sea.

The other images that come up from staring at this sea are those evoked byTreason by the Bookby historian Jonathan Spence – a difficult work, yet one of his most memorable. It recounts the story of Zeng Jing, a scholar who failed to pass the imperial exams to become a mandarin, and turned “conspirator,” by letting himself be seduced by the writings of an earlier intellectual, Lü Liuliang. Lü had lived through one of China’s most unsettling times, the transition from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to that of the invading Qing (1636-1911), and as many of his peers had deep trouble adjusting. The story is full of twists and intrigue, but at its heart is the power of written words when they challenge the rulers: which is exactly the same power Liu Xiaobo accessed, and was punished for. Zeng Jing was arrested for treason, but in an extraordinary move the Yongzheng Emperor (1678-1735) engaged in a kind of “correspondence” with this half mad prisoner, to prove him wrong and convince him of the Qing’s complete legitimacy. Yongzheng “pardoned” Zeng—meaning he didn't condemn him to death—and he lived until Yongzheng’s son, on becoming the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) decided to step in more firmly, executing Zeng Jing by slicing, and having Lü’s grave desecrated and his bones scattered. So, the parallel dissolves quite early on, as there was no engaging from the authorities with Liu Xiaobo’s works, which have been scrubbed out of China, but then it pops up again, with the way everything about LIu is being obliterated—the cruel farce with the foreign doctors, whose visit was filmed and turned into propaganda, and the ultimate denial of a burial place, with the “sea burial” under the pretense of following the family’s wishes. The treatment to which Liu Xia has been subjected since 2010 brings to mind some kind of imperial cruelty: it is not enough to annihilate the man, but the whole family has to be punished. I am not a proponent of the idea of an “eternal China” that hasn’t changed since dynastic times. On the contrary, this kind of parallel can become slippery and dangerous in no time. But looking at the harshness that has been visited upon Liu and his family, the question is a legitimate one: is the Chinese Communist Party trying to live up to, or being inspired by, their imperial forebears? Is this the mercurial model they are thinking about, when they push for a greater role for China in the world, while at the same time they shrug off any attempt at a modern dialogue with other countries, and with their own citizenry.

It’s as if we are now witnessing some kind of contemporary version of the Zeng story in which an ever more opaque leadership decides that its most renowned critic, its most prestigious name in the world needs to be treated like a common criminal, and then, obliterated.

Of course, seen from Hong Kong, for now, this is backfiring. As the news of Liu Xiaobo’s death reached Hong Kong, public mourning was possible—unlike anywhere else in China—and hundreds of people streamed in front of a little makeshift altar near the Liaison Office (China’s highest representation in Hong Kong) to pay their respects. And just days after, a candlelight vigil was held for Liu Xiaobo at the Tamar park, on the shore of the Victoria harbour and just a few hundred feet away from the main theatre of the Occupy protests of 2014.

I’m not the only one here looking at the sea and thinking that it is the same sea as in the north, or all around the globe. People have been bringing flowers to the waters, and placing empty chairs next to it, in memory of the empty chair that was left for Liu Xiaobo in Oslo, the day of the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 2010, when he was already in jail.

Can all the water now remind those who supported Liu Xiaobo, and those who sought to obliterate him, that we are no longer in the days of Treasson by the Book?