Liu Xiaobo (1955 - 2017)

Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who won the honor while a political prisoner in his native China, died Thursday, July 13, 2017, of liver cancer, according to multiple international news sources. He was 61.

Liu died under guard at a state hospital. On June 26, he had been granted medical parole after being diagnosed with the terminal disease.

The literary critic and writer was a human rights activist in China, one of the most prominent dissidents of his time. After rising to prominence as one of the major influencers at the famed Tiananmen Square protest of 1989, he was later imprisoned four times for a total of more than 17 years. The Chinese government censored news of Liu’s activities as he called for an end to communist single-party rule, making him virtually unknown in his homeland. Yet he was legendary to the worldwide human rights community.

Born Dec. 28, 1955, in Changchun, China, Liu attended Jilin University from 1977 to 1982, beginning his college education only after the wane of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, when schools were reopened after a decade of closure. He graduated from Beijing Normal University with a master’s degree in literature in 1984. As he studied for his doctorate, he began speaking out against the Chinese establishment, already gaining a reputation as a “black hand,” a defiant dissident.

After receiving his Ph.D. in 1988, Liu traveled as a visiting scholar, spending time at the University of Oslo, the University of Hawaii, and Columbia University. It was while he was at Columbia in 1989 that Chinese students began demonstrating in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, calling for democracy and freedom of speech and of the press.

Liu returned home with the advent of the protests, joining in and becoming a leader as he initiated a hunger strike. As tensions escalated between the protesters and the military, Liu and three other prominent intellectuals encouraged a dialogue between government and protesters. Liu asked the student protesters, “I understand what you’re feeling, but haven’t you considered how as soon as the first shot rings out, Tiananmen Square will become a river of blood?”

Despite Liu’s efforts, blood was shed at Tiananmen Square June 3 and 4, 1989, as the army opened fire on protesters. At least several hundred were killed, but by most accounts, the death toll would have been much higher if not for Liu’s efforts to convince the students to disperse, and the authorities to allow them to do so. Fellow Protester Gao Yu noted, “If not for the work of Liu and the others to broker a peaceful withdrawal from the square, Tiananmen Square would have been a field of blood on June 4.”

Liu became known as one of the “Four Gentlemen of Tiananmen Square,” the heroes of the movement, as he fostered nonviolent protest and negotiated an end to the escalation. Yet on the day after bloody June 4, he was arrested for his role in the protests. Detained in Qincheng Prison and blasted by the Chinese government-run media, he was later convicted of “counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement” – and finally released from prison upon being charged. He had been incarcerated for a year and a half before charges were brought.

Liu’s time in prison didn’t prompt him to back down from his pro-democracy position. Instead, he doubled down, becoming one of the most active of China’s fighters for freedom. He published commentary and criticism of the government, mounted petitions, spoke abroad about the situation in China. Fellow activist Zhang Zuhua said of Liu, “While others were researching the same problems from a theoretical or policy standpoint, he was actively protesting and actually doing things.”

That activism came at a price, and in 1995, Liu was arrested again, this time for launching a petition campaign calling for political reform. He was jailed for six months, briefly released and arrested again in 1996. The charge again was simply his words: he had called for peaceful reunification with Taiwan. This time, Liu would serve three years in a labor camp.

After his release in 1999, Liu continued publishing, including the lengthy political criticism “A Nation That Lies to Conscience” as well as his 2000 “Selected Poems of Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia,” composed from correspondence with his wife while he was imprisoned. Most prominent among his work during this period was the manifesto “Charter ’08.”

Composed along with other prominent intellectuals over the course of three years, Charter ’08 took inspiration from the Czechoslovakian Charter 77 as it called for massive reform in China including amending the Constitution, guaranteeing human rights and freedoms of assembly and expression, and free elections. The document was signed by 303 Chinese intellectuals and activists, and it was published online, petition-style, Dec. 8, 2008, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations.

Charter ’08 was quickly banned by the Chinese government, blocked from internet searches within the country. Yet before the government could fully lock it down, 10,000 signatures were added to the petition. Just in advance of its publication, Liu was arrested yet again. This sentence, on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” was a harsher one than the previous three: 11 years in prison. A worldwide call went out for Liu’s release from world leaders and the United Nations. China pushed back, condemning what it saw as other governmental bodies interfering in its internal affairs.

Upon his formal sentencing in 2009, Liu offered a statement that became widely read as an essential document of the struggle for human rights. It included the words: “I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who have monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentence me, are my enemies. … I do not feel guilty for following my constitutional right to freedom of expression, for fulfilling my social responsibility as a Chinese citizen. Even if accused of it, I would have no complaints.”

The international community responded to Liu’s imprisonment with a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in January 2010. He was chosen for the award from a broad field of more than 200 nominees. The Nobel Committee’s statement upon choosing Liu for the honor included: For over two decades, Liu Xiaobo has been a strong spokesman for the application of fundamental human rights also in China. He took part in the Tiananmen protests in 1989; he was a leading author behind Charter 08, the manifesto of such rights in China which was published on the 60th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 10th of December 2008. The following year, Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison and two years’ deprivation of political rights for “inciting subversion of state power.” Liu had consistently maintained that the sentence violated both China’s own constitution and fundamental human rights. The campaign to establish universal human rights also in China is being waged by many Chinese, both in China itself and abroad. Through the severe punishment meted out to him, Liu has become the foremost symbol of this wide-ranging struggle for human rights in China.

When the news broke in October 2010 that he had won the honor, making him the third Nobel Peace Prize laureate to be honored while imprisoned, Liu was initially not aware of it because of the lack of access to outside communications, and Chinese authorities made it clear that he would not be allowed to attend the awards ceremony and accept the honor. An empty chair marked his place at the ceremony, and actress Liv Ullman read from his “I Have No Enemies” statement.

China reacted to the award with hostility, noting that the choice to honor Liu would strain diplomatic relations between Norway and China, and blocking any news of the award from news broadcasts, publications, and the internet within the country. Searches for Liu’s name and even for the phrase “empty chair” would return no results.

Liu remained in prison even as he developed liver cancer and grew terminally ill. When he was granted medical parole to the First Hospital of China Medical University, a call went up for him to be sent abroad for better cancer treatment, but this was denied.

Liu is survived by his wife, whom he married in 1996 while serving his third prison term in the labor camp. During his imprisonments, she was typically his only visitor allowed and his sole link with the outside world.

At the time of her husband’s death, she had been under house arrest for several years because of her support of him. Liu is also survived by his son from a previous marriage, Liu Tao.

Liu is mourned by many in the human rights activism community as well as by world leaders. A sampling of reactions to his death:

The Nobel Committee’s statement included: “Today our hearts are filled with gratitude to Liu Xiaobo for his monumental efforts and great sacrifices to advance democracy and human rights. He was truly a prisoner of conscience, and he paid the highest possible price for his relentless struggle. We feel confident that his efforts were not in vain. Liu Xiaobo was a representative of ideas that resonate with millions of people all over the world, even in China. These ideas cannot be imprisoned and will never die.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was among many who expressed condolences while calling for Liu Xia’s release from house arrest: “Today, I join those in China and around the world in mourning the tragic passing of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died while serving a lengthy prison sentence in China for promoting peaceful democratic reform. I call on the Chinese government to release Liu Xia from house arrest and allow her to depart China, according to her wishes.”

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen made a statement that included: “Tonight, everyone around the world who cares about China’s human rights, like us, is deeply saddened by the death of Mr. Liu. I would like to pay the highest tribute to this human rights fighter.”

We invite you to share condolences for Liu Xiaobo in our Guest Book.