January 22, 2018
Friday, July 14, 2017

Liu Xiaobo, Nobel Peace Prize laureate imprisoned in China, dies aged 61

Liu Xiaobo is seen in this undated photo released by his family.
Liu Xiaobo is seen in this undated photo released by his family.
Liu Xiaobo is seen in this undated photo released by his family.

Beijing criticised for not letting dissident seek treatment abroad

In the days after the Chinese writer and dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, on October 8, 2010, his country cut off trade talks with Norway, home of the Nobel committee, and placed his wife under house arrest. In apparent protest of the award, a group of Chinese business and cultural leaders established an alternative to the Nobel, the Confucius Peace Prize, and later honoured such human rights renegades as Vladimir Putin, Fidel Castro and Robert Mugabe.

Liu, who died July 13 at age 61, received the Nobel for what the award committee called his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights.” It was that very struggle, from his hunger strike at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to his insistent calls to end to one-party rule, that also made him a marked man in China. He was in the midst of an 11-year prison sentence when he won the prize.

Foreign news reports about the Nobel honour were blacked out in China, where authorities called the award a “desecration” of the prize. Text messages that included his name went unreceived, stymied by state-run cellular networks, and the news was squelched online by the censorship apparatus known as the “Great Firewall.”

At the Nobel ceremony in Oslo, Liu was represented by an empty chair. Not since the 1935 prize, when German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky was being held at a concentration camp by the Nazis, had a laureate or a family member been unable to accept the honour in person.

Liu spent much of the last three decades in forced confinement — at home, at labour camps or in prison. And his final months, after being diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer in May and granted medical parole, drew international calls for his release. His death, at a hospital in the northeastern city of Shenyang, was confirmed by a statement from the Chinese government, and it made Liu the latest in a string of Chinese dissidents whose incarceration ended in serious illness or fatality. A photograph posted on July 5 on Twitter by the dissident writer Ye Du showed an emaciated Liu at the hospital with his wife, Yu Xia, a photographer and poet who had pleaded for better medical care for Liu.

A pair of US and German doctors who were granted permission to treat Liu said Sunday that he was strong enough to seek medical treatment abroad. Chinese officials resisted that claim, and rebuffed requests to allow him to leave the country. The hospital treating Liu said that he was suffering from respiratory and renal failure, as well as septic shock, and that his family had decided against inserting a breathing tube necessary to keep him alive.

Through it all, Liu’s plight remained largely invisible at home, where his writings were censored and he was labelled a criminal. A bespectacled chain-smoker with a stutter, Liu established himself as a literary and political bombthrower in the mid-1980s, when Chinese society experienced a “cultural fever” under reform-minded Communist Party officials.

Liu “was the enfant terrible of the late-1980s intellectual scene in Beijing,” said journalist Orville Schell, an acquaintance of Liu’s who is now a China scholar at the Asia Society in New York.

Confucius was “a mediocre talent,” Liu said; contemporary Chinese writers were even worse. The country’s “Marxism-Leninism,” he wrote in one article, was “not so much a belief system as a tool used by rulers to impose ideological dictatorship.”

Liu was a visiting scholar at Columbia University when, in April 1989, thousands of students began demonstrating in Tiananmen Square to demand democratic reforms. The assembly marked a turning-point for Liu, who arrived at Tiananmen in May and began protesting alongside the movement’s young leaders.

When the chants began to die down and soldiers started trying to clear the square, Liu and three friends — including Hou Dejian, a popular rock singer from Taiwan — erected a tent alongside the 10-storey Monument to the People’s Heroes, and began a 72-hour hunger strike.

Two nights later, military units launched a full-scale assault on the square, firing their rifles and driving armoured vehicles into crowds that lined the surrounding streets. Liu and his fellow hunger-strikers, fearing a bloodbath in the square, acted as negotiators between military forces and the remaining demonstrators. At dawn on June 4, the group successfully persuaded the students to leave.

Liu’s actions were widely credited with saving thousands of lives. Still, at least several hundred civilians were killed in the attacks, details of which were suppressed by the government. He was imprisoned for 21 months (he would later be convicted of other crimes too) and forbidden from publishing in China — a dictate that he subverted through pseudonyms and by penning articles for overseas publications. Liu published more than 1,000 essays, by his count, and called for reform, not revolution.

— Herald with Washington post

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