Liu Xiaobo had always been a perverse intellectual in the eye of the Chinese Communist Party, but he was eventually rendered incapable of resistance by terminal liver cancer.
His body was hastily cremated less than two days after he died, soon after the local authorities scrambled some of his relatives for a deuced, short farewell ceremony. His ashes were soon scattered at sea, claimed by officials as in line with the local custom.
The final chapter of Liu’s dissenting life and what he was put through by a regime that couldn’t treat the prisoner of conscience with more contempt serve as a somber reminder of the West’s hypocrisy, when human rights issues take a back seat in its dealings with China.
Liu, then a lecturer in literature at the Beijing Normal University, became a preeminent figure in Tiananmen Square in 1989 after he negotiated with the troops and helped evacuate thousands of student protesters in the dawn of June 4, before a massacre that could have otherwise inflicted even more bloodshed.
From then on, Liu himself embarked upon a career from the country’s literati to politics, and was since then put in prison or sent to labor camps a number of times.
He was sentenced to 11 years for subversion after co-drafting Charter 08 in 2008, a manifesto calling for an end to one-party dictatorship. Two years later, he became the first Chinese to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, although in absentia, after Beijing’s ire and coercion failed to deter the Norwegian awarding body.
John Kamm, founder of the humanitarian Dui Hua Foundation who spent years lobbying Beijing for leniency and release of political offenders and activists, said he did all he could to help transfer Liu and his wife, Liu Xia, for overseas treatment, but to no avail.
Sophie Richardson, China director at advocacy group Human Rights Watch, said the West has for years given up pressuring Beijing through diplomatic means, amid the West’s waning resolve to prioritize human rights and NGO issues, even using them as a political leverage.
The yawningly different ways some United Nations officials responded to Liu’s death have also raised eyebrows.
In a bluntly worded statement, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid bin Ra’ad al-Hussein lauded Liu as “a principled champion who devoted his life to defending and promoting human rights… and who was jailed for standing up for his beliefs”, while calling on the Chinese authorities to guarantee Liu Xia’s freedom and allow her to travel abroad should she wish so. He hoped that Liu’s family could be able to grieve and honour Liu in accordance with their wishes.
But UN Secretary-General António Guterres minced his words, other than expressing, through his spokesperson, his sorrow at Liu’s passing, in a short read-out devoid of any mention of the couple’s ordeal.
When Liu and his comrades in arms ardently preached what a free society could bring to China while drawing up Charter 08, many once hoped that, marketization as well as the political awakening of China’s middle class, coupled with the West’s help, would ultimately lead to the demise of totalitarianism, as seen elsewhere in the world. But that expectation never played out, nor will it come true in the foreseeable future.
Liu the poet
Before marrying Liu Xia, Liu Xiaobo had already lost his first marriage. His first wife Tao Li divorced him and emigrated to the United States with their son in the aftermath of the Tiananmen protest when Liu was facing imprisonment.
Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia met in 1991 when the latter just ended her own unhappy marriage, and their common passion for poetry and literature helped cement their relationship.
The pair registered for marriage five years later when Liu Xiaobo was sent to a labor camp in northeastern China for co-authoring a platform demanding political liberalization.
During Liu Xiaobo’s last days, he was put under de facto confinement when he was being treated; he still managed to write, on his deathbed, a three-page preface for his wife’s new photo collection, Accompanying Liu Xiaobo.
“The wooden woman with a crape silk is perhaps the widow who witnessed the resurrection of Jesus, or one of the three witches in Macbeth (who led Macbeth to his demise),” he wrote.
Another poem he wrote in prison for his wife not too long after their marriage was brimming with his deep love for his wife, with whom he was more often separated than together, in particular in Liu Xiaobo’s final years: “the bride not recognized, cannot rendezvous with her husband… in a penitentiary her beloved one is held, a man also mourns a woman and a marriage deprived”.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 18
Translation by Frank Chen
[Chinese version 中文版]
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Liu Xiaobo – a grim historical comparison