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Liu Xiaobo, a dissident 'without enemies'

Matthias von Hein cl
July 13, 2017

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, an important critic of China's Communist Party, has died after years of imprisonment. He is known for his peaceful fight for democracy.

Liu's empty chair at Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo
Image: picture-alliance/NTB scanpix

Liu Xiaobo, critic of China's Communist Party, dead after years in prison

Liu Xiaobo was a true patriot. He was a man with a vision and mission for his country. He did not allow himself to be intimidated by the sheer power of the almighty Communist Party of China. With impressive stubbornness he held fast to his belief that a single-party dictatorship was not the best path for China, but rather democracy, a separation of powers and the rule of law. Liu was aware that his position could create difficulties:

"One of the professional risks that come with being a dissident is losing one's freedom," he told DW in an interview in a hotel lobby in the summer of 2007. At the time, in the run-up to the Beijing Olympic Games, the Chinese authorities came across as somewhat more open toward foreign media. Liu was a small, almost delicate man with short hair and glasses - a picture-book intellectual. But he was someone with an iron will, which was coupled with kindness, someone with immeasurable courage, which was paired with humor.

At that time, Liu had already had extensive experience of life behind bars: He served three prison sentences in the 1990s, totaling almost five years. He was jailed for the first time after the brutal crackdown on the Chinese democracy movement on Tiananmen Square in June 1989 after having returned from a research visit in the United States to take part in it. He played an important role during the night of June 3, 1989, when he negotiated the peaceful withdrawal of a group of students who had been demonstrating on Tiananmen Square. His action prevented even more people from being killed during the Chinese government's military attack. Liu was greatly influenced by the Tiananmen massacre. As a survivor, he saw it as his duty to fight for justice for those who had been killed. "I feel some sort of a sense of duty to the dead, that I can never get rid of," he told DW in 2007. 

Read more: Opinion - The other China  

In December 2008, Liu and more than 300 other Chinese intellectuals and civil rights activists published the Charter 08. This manifesto demanded democratic reforms in China by peaceful means. Nineteen measures were itemized with the aim of improving China's human rights situation. There were demands for an independent judiciary, freedom of political association and an end to the one-party system. The regime took this as an attack - one that appeared even more threatening because it had the backing of intellectuals from very different and often opposing camps.'No enemies'

Berlin protesters wear panda costumes to mock Chinese President Xi and Germany's Merkel
Protesters in Berlin demanded "Free movement for Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia" (July 5) Image: Reuters/F. Bensch

Only days after the publication of Charter 08, Liu, as the main initiator, was arrested. He did not have the good fortune to be tried by an independent judiciary. On December 25, 2009, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for "inciting subversion of state power." China's leaders knew that many of Beijing's foreign correspondents would have returned home over Christmas. By choosing this date they were guaranteeing they would get as little attention as possible and fewer negative headlines. John Kamm, founder of the legal aid group Dui Hua (Dialogue),  said Liu had received the longest sentence ever for that particular offense, which was introduced in 1997.  

"I want to tell the regime that is withholding my freedom: I have no enemies," Liu wrote in an essay that was published worldwide in 2010. Liu included police officers, public prosecutors and judges in his statement. "I do not accept your surveillance, your confinement, your judgements," he wrote. "But I do respect your professions and your personalities." He added: "Hatred corrodes the wisdom and the conscience of a human being. Demonizing others can poison the spirit of a nation, destroy tolerance and humanity, and block the path to progress and democracy. I hope to be able to respond with best intentions to the hostility of the regime, and to defuse hatred with love."   

The text was read out on the stage when Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 2010. The Norwegian Nobel Committee honored Liu for his long and non-violent fight for fundamental human rights in China. An empty chair sat where he would have were he not in prison.

Not even Liu's wife, Xia, was allowed to travel to Oslo to represent him. The artist has been deemed jointly liable for her husband's offense and has been under house arrest since 2010. When journalists were still allowed to speak with her, she told DW that her husband was incredibly strong-willed. When he believed in a goal, she said, he would work toward it - even if he knew that he would never see it realized within his lifetime. There was something unbelievably stubborn about him.

Appeals to the Chinese government for Liu's release proved futile. In late June 2017, he was finally transferred from prison - but only in order to be immediately admitted to hospital. His lawyer Shang Baojun explained that Liu's sentence had been "suspended for medical treatment." He was, however, not permitted to seek treatment overseas. Liu Xiaobo died after his battle with liver cancer on Thursday, July 13. He was 61 years old. 

Since his death, China has lodged formal protests over what it called "irresponsible remarks" made about Liu by foreign leaders, the Foreign Ministry said. Among those to receive protest notes are the United States, Germany and the United Nations.

Friends of Liu now say that ensuring the freedom of his widow, Liu Xia, is a top priority, adding that they have been unable to contact her.