‘Liu Knew His Responsibility in History’

A Eulogy for Liu Xiaobo

The writer Ian Johnson delivered this speech in German at a memorial service in Berlin on July 13, 2018 marking the one-year anniversary of Liu Xiaobo’s death. The speech is an adaptation of an essay Johnson wrote for The New York Review of Books.

In 1898, some of China’s most brilliant minds allied themselves with the Emperor Guangxu, a young ruler who was trying to assert himself by forcing through reforms to open up China’s political, economic, and educational systems. But opponents quickly struck back, deposing the emperor and causing his advisors to flee for their lives.

One, however, stayed put. He was Tan Sitong, a young scholar from a far-off corner of the empire. Tan knew that staying in Beijing meant death, but hoped that his execution might help shock his fellow citizens awake.

It wasn’t a modest decision. Tan was one of the most brilliant essayists of his generation. He had published an influential book decrying the role of absolutism. He had founded schools, newspapers, and advised other political figures on the need for reform. There was every justification for him to save his own skin so he could contribute to future battles. But these arguments also made Tan realize how valuable it was that he stay and fight: facing death proudly, at the hands of those resisting reforms, might matter; people might pay attention.

So as his friends boarded ships to Japan or fled to the provinces, Tan went to a small hotel in Beijing and waited for the imperial troops. They soon arrived and quickly put him on an inevitable show trial. It was interrupted only by an order from above to get on with it: Tan was to be executed immediately.

Before his decapitation at Beijing’s Caishikou execution grounds, Tan uttered what today are some of the most famous words in China’s century-and-a-half effort to form a modern, pluralistic state: “I wanted to kill the robbers, but lacked the strength to transform the world. This is the place where I should die. Rejoice, rejoice!”

Since Liu Xiaobo died of cancer a year ago, I’ve often thought of Tan Sitong’s fate. Cancer is not the same as an executioner’s sword. But the deaths of the two resonate across the 120 years that separate them. Like Tan, Liu threw his weight behind a cause that in its immediate aftermath seemed hopeless—in Liu’s case, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. But with time, history vindicated Tan; the question I wonder is if it will do the same for Liu.

* * *

When the 1989 protests erupted, Liu was abroad but chose to return. After one stint in jail after the Tiananmen protests were bloodily suppressed, he had opportunities to leave China but again chose to stay. And then after a second harsher stint in jail he again decided to remain and keep pushing. He was risking not the immediate arrival of soldiers, but the inevitable and life-threatening imprisonment that befalls all people who challenge state power in China today.

This was not an active decision to die, but a willingness to do so.

The tragedy was that his punishments grew with his moderation. Liu began life as a typical product of the Mao era: prone to extreme, romantic positions—a “gangster”—enamored with grand gestures and outrageously rude statements. In a way, the early Liu was like Tan Sitong, hoping to shock China awake.

But Liu’s rigorous self-reflection changed his views and actions. This didn’t mean shunning protests or direct action, but to promote social change through one’s own life and actions. He said Chinese should study “the non-democratic way we live,” and “consciously attempt to put democratic ideals into practice in our own personal relationships (between teachers and students, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, and between friends).”



Liu Xiaobo, 1955-2017

Perry Link, Thomas Kellogg & more
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-...

Liu’s moderation culminated in Charter 08, a petition for political change that he helped draft. In 2009, he was sentenced to 11 years for “subversion of state power.”

This wasn’t the same as Tan’s death sentence, but it marked the end of Liu’s freedom. At the time, Liu was 54 and it was conceivable that he could have been released at age 65 to live another decade or two. But even if he had left prison alive in 2020, it would have been to permanent house arrest and removal from public life—no Internet, no telephone, no visitors—much the way his wife, the poet Liu Xia, was made to disappear. But Chinese prisons are harsh, and house arrest was not to be his fate.

After Liu died, the Global Times predicted that Liu would be forgotten with time. It said that heroes are only created if their “endeavors and persistence have value to the country’s development and historical trends.”

* * *

This is the crux of the issue: China’s long-term trends. Early on in their rule, China’s authoritarian leaders justified their rule through mysticism: that the forces of history had chosen the Communist Party. Then, after 30 years of political upheaval and famines ended in the late 1970s, the Party adopted the role of a development dictatorship: it developed, therefore it ruled.

For about the past decade, however, this rationale has faded as growth has slowed and many Chinese grow used to prosperity. Now, China’s rulers use other justifications: they are helping to restore traditions destroyed during the 20th century, and vow to create a more moral political and social order.



Liu Xiaobo’s Three Refusals: No Enemies, No Hatred, No Lies

Orville Schell & John Delury
In the spring of 1989, Liu Xiaobo was a thirty-four-year-old professor of literature and philosophy at Beijing Normal University with a keen interest in political ideas, who when demonstrations broke out, quickly became a habitué of Tiananmen...

But how to reconcile this new vision with the treatment of people like Liu? In one of his essays, Liu made a prescient point about dissent. He said that people today have become less willing to tolerate the government locking people up for expressing their views.

Maybe this is because the idea of offering constructive criticism has been an accepted part of China’s political system for thousands of years. China has a long history and many emperors have rejected advice and executed officials for daring to offer it. But they always went down in history as stubborn and unwise.

This is why Liu matters: his life and death stand for the fundamental conundrum of Chinese reformers over the past century: not how to boost GDP or recover lost territories, but how to create a more humane and just political system.

Like Tan, Liu knew his responsibility in history. Tan saw China plagued by a cycle of karmic evil that had to be broken. For Liu, his role as a public intellectual was to see the future and report back, whatever the costs. As he wrote in the 1988 essay “On Solitude”:

Their most important, indeed their sole destiny . . . is to enunciate thoughts that are ahead of their time. The vision of the intellectual must stretch beyond the range of accepted ideas and concepts of order; he must be adventurous, a lonely forerunner; only after he has moved on far ahead do others discover his worth . . . he can discern the portents of disaster at a time of prosperity, and in his self-confidence experience the approaching obliteration.

This is the answer to the government’s prediction that Liu will be forgotten. The significance of Liu is of a forerunner who points to looming problems. It isn’t that his death will galvanize the opposition, or other such romantic fantasies. Instead, he matters because his life, his critique, and his death are becoming part of public memory. Thanks to censorship, most people of course don’t know about him, but in the long run the efforts of people like him matter.

This isn’t a romantic fantasy but a realistic appraisal of how public memory works in any country, but especially in China. Throughout China’s long history, free-thinking people—from its greatest sage, Confucius, to its first and greatest historian, Sima Qian—were ignored or persecuted in their own time only to be recognized by history.

This is in fact how history in China has always been written. Time and again, people who spoke the truth have been banished, executed, or in some way silenced. They are beaten down but they keep coming back—a continuous struggle against the emperors. They stand up and are beaten down. Yet they continue to struggle.

And one day, as always happens—maybe only in several decades—those who struggle for the truth and dignity will win and history will be written.