The Passion of Liu Xiaobo

In the late 1960s Mao Zedong, China’s Great Helmsman, encouraged children and adolescents to confront their teachers and parents, root out “cow ghosts and snake spirits,” and otherwise “make revolution.” In practice, this meant closing China’s schools. In the decades since, many have decried a generation’s loss of education.

Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was sentenced to eleven years for “inciting subversion” of China’s government, and who died of liver cancer on Thursday, illustrates a different pattern. Liu, born in 1955, was eleven when the schools closed, but he read books anyway, wherever he could find them. With no teachers to tell him what the government wanted him to think about what he read, he began to think for himself—and he loved it. Mao had inadvertently taught him a lesson that ran directly counter to Mao’s own goal of converting children into “little red soldiers.”

But this experience only partly explains Liu’s stout independence. It also seems to have been an inborn trait. If there is a gene for bluntness, Liu likely had it. In the 1980s, while still a graduate student in Chinese literature, he was already known as a “black horse” for denouncing nearly every contemporary Chinese writer: the literary star Wang Meng was politically slippery; “roots-seeking” writers like Han Shaogong were excessively romantic about the value of China’s traditions; even speak-for-the-people heroes like Liu Binyan were too ready to pin hopes on “liberal” Communist leaders like Hu Yaobang. No one was independent enough. “I can sum up what’s wrong with Chinese writers in one sentence,” Liu Xiaobo wrote in 1986. “They can’t write creatively themselves—they simply don’t have the ability—because their very lives don’t belong to them.”

He carried his candor with him when he went abroad. At a conference on Chinese film at the University of Oslo in 1988, he was surprised to learn that European Sinologists couldn’t speak Chinese (they only read it) and were far too naïve in accepting Chinese government statements at face value. “Ninety-eight percent are useless,” he observed (and the conference itself was “agonizingly boring”). From Oslo he went to New York, to Columbia University, where he found it irritating that postcolonial theorists were telling him how it felt to be the subaltern Other. Shouldn’t he be telling them that?

In the spring of 1989, two experiences, the first in New York and the second in Beijing, profoundly altered the course of his thinking and his life. He was just finishing a book, Chinese Politics and China’s Modern Intellectuals, which explored several ways in which Western civilization can be “a tool to critique China.” Now, though, visiting the West, he found that the model was not so clear. Issues like the energy crisis, environmental protection, nuclear weapons, and what he called “the addiction to pleasure and to commercialization” were human problems, not particularly Eastern or Western. Moreover, a visit to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art had brought him an epiphany: no one had solved the spiritual question of “the incompleteness of the individual person.” Even China’s great modern writer Lu Xun, whose fiction was so good at revealing moral callousness, hypocrisy, superstition, and cruelty, could not, in Liu Xiaobo’s view, take the next step and “struggle with the dark.” Lu Xun tried this, in his prose poems, but in the end backed off; he “could not cope with the solitary terror of the grave” and “failed to find any transcendental values to help him continue.”

Chinese Politics had already been sent to its publisher, but Liu decided to add an “Epilogue” anyway, and, with characteristic honesty, used it to undermine the book’s main theme. To be “an authentic person,” he wrote, he would now have to “carry out two critiques simultaneously”: one of China, still using the West as a measuring rod, and another of the West itself, for which he would have to start over, from scratch, and rethink everything. He finished the essay in March 1989, ending it with the words “this epilogue has exhausted me.”

The next month he boarded an airplane in New York bound for Beijing, not from exhaustion but because he had read about the student demonstrations for democracy in Tiananmen Square and felt a duty to support them. “I hope,” he wrote, “that I’m not the type of person who, standing at the doorway to hell, strikes a heroic pose and then starts frowning with indecision.”

In Beijing, the students’ idealism moved him. He helped them to plan a hunger strike and joined it himself. His approach was non-confrontational, almost Gandhian. In his “June 2nd Hunger Strike Declaration” he wrote that “a democratic society is not built on hatred and enmity; it is built on consultation, debate, and voting…[and on] mutual respect, tolerance, and willingness to compromise.” Less than two days later Liu had an opportunity to put his words into practice. As tanks began rolling toward Tiananmen Square and it was already clear that people in their way were being killed, Liu and his friends Zhou Duo and Hou Dejian negotiated with the attacking military to allow students in Tiananmen Square to exit safely. It is impossible to say how many lives they saved by this compromise, but it was certainly dozens and maybe hundreds.

Afterward, though, Liu made what he later regarded as a “mistake” that he rued for the rest of his life. He sought temporary safety in the home of a foreign diplomat. He later heard that others—mostly ordinary citizens—had stayed in the streets to help people who were wounded or were still being shot at. They risked their own lives to offer help, and when the government set punishments for participants in the “counterrevolutionary riot,” these ordinary people were treated more harshly than the student demonstrators. Many received prison sentences of eighteen to twenty years, and some were executed. Liu himself was sent to Qincheng Prison, an elite facility where the political opponents of top leaders are held, and stayed only nineteen months—“deathly bored, but that’s about it.”

Liu felt haunted by the “lost souls” of Tiananmen, the aggrieved ghosts of students and workers alike whose ages would forever be the same as on the night they died. He wrote that he could hear their plaintive cries—“weak, helpless, heart-rending”—rising from beneath the earth. Each year on the anniversary of the massacre he wrote a poem to honor them. His “final statement” at his trial in December 2009 opens: “June 1989 has been the major turning point in my life.” In October 2010, when his wife Liu Xia brought him the news of his Nobel Peace Prize, she reports that he commented, “This is for the aggrieved ghosts.”

After his release from Qincheng Prison in 1991, Liu was banned from publishing in China and fired from his teaching post at Beijing Normal University—even though students there had always loved his lectures. He began to support himself by writing for magazines in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas. The rise of the Internet in China in the early 2000s gave a huge boost to circulation of his essays, not only outside China but inside, too, as overseas friends found ways to skirt the government’s Great Firewall and send them back into China. Before 1989, his essays had been mostly on contemporary Chinese literature, but now he addressed topics in history, politics, and society, revealing a rich erudition. He also began to write poetry. The breadth of topics in his poems and essays can be startling: Confucius, Kant, St. Augustine, farmers in Jiangsu, Olympic athletes, humor in China and Czechoslovakia, pornography and politics, the Internet revolution, Obama’s election, a murdered puppy, international relations, the Dalai Lama, China’s “economic miracle,” and much more.

Consistent with his adoption of a “no enemies” philosophy after 1989, the fiery tone of his earlier writings now cooled. But his utter candor—his seeming inability not to be candid—did not change. By the middle of the 2000s, Liu Xiaobo was commonly viewed as China’s leading dissident. In the spring of 2008, some of his friends conceived the idea of writing a citizens’ manifesto calling for free elections and constitutional government in China. They called it “Charter 08,” in conscious admiration of Václav Havel and Czechoslovakia’s “Charter 77.” Liu Xiaobo did not join at first, but in the fall, when the drafting was well underway and momentum was building, he threw his energy into the project. He edited drafts and tried to remove needlessly provocative language that might prevent some people from signing. He then worked hard to solicit signatures—not only from known dissidents but from workers, farmers, state officials, and others willing to gather under the broad tent of asking for a more open and liberal society. The language of the Charter is moderate. Much of it already appears in Chinese and United Nations documents. But a few lines, like “we must abolish the special privilege of one party to monopolize power,” clearly did go beyond what China’s rulers could stomach.

It is clear that Liu’s work on Charter 08 led to his eleven-year prison sentence a year later, and to his Nobel Peace Prize a year after that. At the Nobel banquet in December 2010, a member of the selection committee told me that her group had for years been wanting to find a Chinese winner for their prize and that the previous year’s events “made this finally seem the right time.” Chinese President Hu Jintao and his Politburo were likely annoyed to realize (if ever they did) that their imprisonment of Liu helped pave the way to his award.

It might seem puzzling that an advocate of “no enemies” who actually worked to soften the language of the Charter should have been singled out for punishment during the government’s crackdown. Several of Liu’s colleagues were detained and interrogated, and had their computers confiscated, but only Liu was sent to prison. While it is a standard device in Communist Chinese political engineering to “kill a chicken for the monkeys to see,” the question remains why a pacifist chicken would be their choice.

The answer seems to be that the Charter movement was viewed as an unauthorized “organization” of which Liu was the leader. The men who rule China have shown in recent times that they can tolerate tongue-lashings from the populace so long as it comes from isolated individuals. An unauthorized organization, even if moderate, must be crushed. In 2005 Hu Jintao issued a classified report called “Fight a Smokeless Battle: Keep ‘Color Revolutions’ Out of China.” It said people like Nelson Mandela, Lech Wałęsa, and Aung San Suu Kyi are dangerous. If similar movements appear in China, Hu instructed, “the big ones” should be arrested and “the little ones” left alone. In November 2008, when Chinese police learned that people were signing Charter 08, it was officially labeled an attempt to start a “color revolution.” That made Liu Xiaobo a “big one” who needed to be brought down. There are signs that Liu himself understood the mechanism. When he joined the Charter effort he told his friends that, in addition to editing and gathering signatures, he would “take responsibility” for the Charter—in effect, risk being a “big one.”

Why Hu Jintao and his people decided on a sentence of eleven years—not ten, twelve, or some other number—was a mystery at the time and remains so now. Of the many guesses that have been offered, one was that eleven years is 4,018 days and there are 4,024 Chinese characters in Charter 08. Thus: one day for every character you wrote, Mr. Liu, and we’ll waive the final six. (This was a guess, but not a joke. That petty-minded and highly personal kind of thinking is common in elite Chinese politics.)

The combination of Charter 08 and a consequent 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, and had often pinned hopes on one or another high official, but Charter 08 seemed to say that there can be another way to be modern Chinese.

It was hard to find people who disagreed with the Charter once they read it, and it was precisely this potential for contagion that most worried regime leaders. That was their reason (not their stated reason but their real one) for suppressing the Charter, for imprisoning Liu Xiaobo, and for denouncing his Nobel Peace Prize. Their efforts have been effective: most young Chinese today do not know who Liu Xiaobo is, and older ones who do are well aware of the costs of saying anything about him in public.

The controls on Chinese society have been tightened during the last few years, under the rule of Xi Jinping—the opposite direction of what Charter 08 called for. This raises the question, “Is the Charter dead? Was the effort in vain?” It is difficult, but my answer would be no. The organization has been crushed but its ideas have not been. The government’s continuing efforts—assiduous, inveterate, nationwide, and very costly—to repress anything that resembles the ideas of Charter 08 is evidence enough that the men who rule are quite aware of its continuing power.

It would have been wonderful to hear Liu Xiaobo himself answer the question. The world was not been allowed to hear one sentence from him since his “Final Statement” at trial in 2009. In June of this year, he was moved to a prison ward in a Shenyang hospital with late-stage liver cancer. He asked for safe passage for himself, his wife, and his brother-in-law to go to Germany or the US so he could receive treatment. The Chinese government refused, saying Liu had already received the best possible medical care and was too weak to travel. He died on July 13.

It is unclear why, in the final weeks of his life, Liu agreed to drop his desire to remain in China despite his consistent rejection of the marginalization that exile inevitably brings; he may have wanted to use his last energies to help his long-suffering wife Liu Xia and her brother Liu Hui get out of China. But his captors’ thinking could not have been clearer: it had nothing to do with medical care and everything to do with preventing Liu Xiaobo from speaking his mind one last time. What were his thoughts during his eight years in prison? What did he foresee for a world in which China’s Communist dictatorship continues to grow?

Liu Xiaobo has been compared to Nelson Mandela, Václav Havel, and Aung San Suu Kyi, each of whom accepted prison as the price for 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 Xi Jinping. The two were separated 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, riding the coattails of his elite-Communist father, to one day vie 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 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. In their final standoff, one “won,” the other “lost.” But two hundred years from now, who will recall 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?