Liu Xiaobo dies at 61: a look at his life.

Written by Avital Avina.

Liu Xiaobo was not a name I was familiar with until his death. I might have heard about him in passing in a Chinese history class or on the news, but who the man was and what he did, and sacrificed, for China seemed to have slipped me by. This all changed over the last couple of weeks when the news was flooded with articles about his illness and subsequent death. This week’s blog introduces who the man was and what reactions were to his death. The follow up entry will look at how media framing can be used to look at his life and death in completely different ways.

Who was Liu Xiaobo?

Born in 1955 in Jilin province, he was the third of five brothers. When the Cultural Revolution started in 1966, Liu was just 11 years old. Like other youngsters at the time, he was too young to be a full participant in the tumultuous violence, but old enough to remember and enjoy the unintentional freedom it lent them. His older brothers were Red Guards, his father was too busy, and his grandmother had been sent away to be re-educated in the countryside (Quartz, 2017). He was later sent to work on a farm and subsequently worked in Changchun at a construction company (Reuters, 2010). In his biography Steel Gate to Freedom, Liu recalls that ‘[m]y parents were off ‘revolutionising,’ schools stopped, and I was for a time able to be rid of the constraints of an ‘education’’(Quartz, 2017). With Mao’s death and the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, Liu was one of the first students to enter university, studying Chinese literature at Jilin University.

After completing his bachelor’s degree at Jilin, he moved on to Beijing Normal University where he later completed his MA and PhD. This eventually led to a faculty position at the same university. Even at this early stage in his career, Liu made a point to go against the status quo, publishing Criticism of the Choice: Dialogues with Li Zehou, where he challenged the popular Professor’s ideas. As a visiting scholar, Liu worked at universities in Oslo, Hawaii, and Columbia University.

However, it was leaving his post at Columbia University that resulted in his sudden shot into the spotlight. In 1989 Liu Xiaobo made a decision that would impact the rest of his life. He decided to return to Beijing to not only take part in, but to become a leading member of the Tiananmen Square Democracy Movement. He, along with Hou Dejian, Zhou Duo, and Gao Xin, was one of the instrumental leaders of the hunger strike that started on 2 June (nobelprize.org). Just a couple days later, he again gained attention, this time negotiating safe passage for the students of the movement to leave before there was bloodshed (Kristoff, 2017). Liu Xiaobo was later arrested and spent the next two years in Qincheng Prison.

From this point onward, Liu Xiaobo became an advocate for increased freedoms for the Chinese people and a leader of the activist movement in China. Over the years he produced hundreds of publications, most, if not all of which are banned in China. One of his most famous and infamous contributions was as a key drafter of the ‘Charter 08’, taking inspiration from the Czechoslovakian publication in January 1977 that called for human and civil rights in the country and worldwide. This short document calls for an end to some of the CCP’s current governing strategies, including the one-Party system and openly requests a more democratic and republican form of government, based on basic human rights and equality (Link, 2009).

Initially more than 300 activists signed the Charter, with many more showing support from both inside and outside China (Myers & Ramzy, 2017). The demands seem very mild to a Western perspective; separation of powers, rural-urban equality, and freedom of religion and media are so ingrained into Western society that it seems like a reasonable request of any modernised government. This currently seems an unlikely path from a government that censors Winnie the Pooh.

As a result of Liu Xiaobo’s participation in the drafting of Charter 08, he was arrested and sentenced to eleven years in prison for ‘inciting subversion of state power’. In 2010, while still in prison, Liu won the Nobel Peace Prize for his writings on democracy and continued commitment to ‘nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China’ (Myers & Ramzy, 2017). Unfortunately, due to his incarceration, he was unable to attend the award ceremony; the Nobel committee was forced to award his prize to an empty chair. Liu’s acceptance speech, made in absentia, is a moving piece in which he talked about his life, his works, and the impacts on his life. Despite his struggles and sacrifices, he continued to be an optimistic and bright man who looked at the good in his situation. He comments on how his treatment in the prisons have been ‘good’, his love for his wife, and his hope for the future (Liu, 2009). He is the first Nobel laureate to die while imprisoned since Carl von Ossietzky in Nazi Germany in 1938 (Jiang, George & Sanchez, 2017). His wife, Liu Xia, has also been under house arrest since his award.

Reactions to his illness and death

In late May this year Liu was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer, and then in June ‘released’ onto medical parole for care. At this late stage of cancer, it was unlikely to be treated successfully, leading to suspicions of purposeful neglect. Several foreign doctors examined Liu, said he was fit to travel for extra care, and offered to relocate him for special treatment (Hernandez & Buckley, 2017). Liu Xiaobo and his wife requested that he be given leave to seek medical treatment abroad. The Chinese government refused this request. A video of his care filmed and edited by the prison officials was released on boxun.com, a US-based Chinese language website; however, according to Myers (2017), ‘it was impossible to verify the circumstances surrounding the video, including the timing of its release and whether Mr. Liu consented to its being made’. Less than a month after his diagnosis, on 13 July, Liu Xiaobo died at the age of 61 (Haas, 2017).

Reactions to his death were powerful. The Chinese authorities had him cremated and in a ‘highly scripted ceremony’ had his ashes scattered at sea (Haas, 2017). According to a close friend, Hu Jia, the sea burial was a purposeful move by the Chinese authorities to remove any trace of the dissident from the country and prevent supporters from creating a shrine to Liu (Campbell, 2017). Inside China, public reactions were limited due to strong censorship and government control of public gatherings. Hong Kong, as a semi-autonomous region, was the only location within the country that held a public march to mourn his passing.

Outside of China, responses to his death were even more passionate. Several personal friends published open letters, describing his life works and their emotional reactions to his illness and subsequent death (see Kristoff, 2017; Sala, 2017). Others condemned his treatment and were glad of his ‘release’ despite the dire circumstances. Taiwan’s leader called for change in China, and asked for the government to allow the people the freedom of a democratic rights. Several countries’ leaders, including Angela Merkel, and Yoshihide Suga expressed their condolences and paid tribute to Liu. Rex Tillerson, US Secretary of State, released a statement: “[Liu Xiaobo] dedicated his life to the betterment of his country and humankind, and to the pursuit of justice and liberty” (Jiang, George, & Sanchez, 2017). One interesting reaction was the push by US Senator Ted Cruz to rename the address of the Chinese Embassy after Liu, a move that would certainly be a controversial political statement (Thomas, 2017).

Image Credit: CC by Marco Verch/Flickr

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