China’s freedom movement hasn’t died with Liu

opinion July 18, 2017 01:00

Nobel Peace laureate leaves a legacy that will inspire future generations



Liu Xiaobo is practically unknown in mainland China, where the communist regime suppresses even mention of his name. Yet Liu, who died of cancer last week after spending the final 11 years of his life in jail, will be remembered by the rest of the world as a martyr in the cause of freedom for Chinese people.

News of the Nobel Peace laureate’s rapidly deteriorating health had made headlines around the world, but not in China. His death last Thursday in China’s Shenyang went unmarked on the mainland, though mourners did take to the streets in Hong Kong. Elsewhere the picture could not have been more different. An international outcry over Liu’s freedom struggle and death in custody erupted from human rights defenders, the world’s media and civil society groups.

There’s no doubt that his legacy is secure and will inspire the younger generations in China and elsewhere to fight for their liberty against oppressive government control.

Born in Changchun, Jilin on December 28, 1955 to an intellectual family, Liu was a literary critic, writer, poet and human rights activist who dared to call for political reform and democracy under China’s authoritarian regime.

While studying literature during the 1970s and ’80s, he built a reputation for sharp critique and radical ideas that came to be known as the “Liu Xiaobo Phenomenon” for their affect on China’s intellectual landscape. His doctoral thesis on “Aesthetic and Human Freedom’ was published as a book, and Liu took up invitations to teach abroad at the universities of Columbia and Hawaii in the United States, and in Europe at the University of Oslo.

During the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest, he decided to leave the US to return home and join the pro-democracy movement. He was quickly arrested and expelled from Beijing University, and his work banned from being published in China.

Liu was convicted of counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement, but exempted from criminal punishment for urging students to leave Tiananmen Square before the crackdown and eventual massacre. In 1995, he was placed under house arrest for nine years for launching a campaign to commemorate the Tiananmen protest. A year after his release he was jailed again, and this time sentenced to three years’ hard labour and “re-education”. During this period he married poet Liu Xia, his second wife, who publicised his case abroad. Released in 1999, Liu became a freelance writer, publishing his works in Taiwan and Hong Kong though he remained under close government surveillance.

His final arrest took place in 2009, for his role in co-authoring Charter 08, a manifesto calling for reform and the elimination of one-party rule, which was released on December 10, 2008 to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

In 2010, while in jail, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, provoking a furious reaction from the Beijing government, which promptly placed his wife Liu Xia under house arrest.

Late last month, reports emerged that Liu had been granted parole to receive medical treatment after being diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer. Beijing ignored subsequent pleas for his release to travel abroad for treatment. Chinese authorities released pictures purported to be of his funeral on Saturday. The government announced his ashes were scattered at sea as requested by his family. “Sea burial” is not recognised as a Chinese tradition, however, and many observers note that it conveniently leaves no site of “pilgrimage” for his supporters.

However, there are plenty of other ways to remember the great intellectual, with Liu’s many books, articles and poems readily available internationally and even to those who seek them out in China. 

Another lasting reminder of his legacy is the ongoing detention of Liu’s wife and poor treatment of his family, yet the Chinese government seems oblivious to the storm of international criticism that continues to blow over its harsh actions. 

China’s long history has shown time and again that while regimes are born and die, the free spirit of the people always lives on. Liu Xiaobo and the legacy he leaves embody that truth.

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