Liu Xiaobo – a grim historical comparison

July 14, 2017 18:02
Pro-democracy activists mourn Liu Xiaobo's death outside Beijing's Liaison Office in Hong Kong; inset: Carl von Ossietzky. Photo: Reuters/Wikipedia

In a Berlin road that bears his name stands a statue of Carl von Ossietzky, who died in 1938. Before the tragic death of Liu Xiaobo he was the only Nobel Peace Prize laureate to have never personally received his award and died in a hospital while incarcerated for his opposition to the Nazi regime.

The Nazis made sure that most of the German population knew nothing about Von Ossietzky’s demise, having spent the years before his death painting him as an anti-patriotic criminal.

Germany took a while to come to terms with the Nazi legacy but a new generation of Germans knows all about Von Ossietzky and they have ensured that he is honored and that his sacrifice is appreciated.

The day will come when Liu Xiaobo will also be honored and memorialized in his own country, and because he has been such a towering figure in China’s democracy movement future generations will come to recognize their depth of gratitude to this modest man who even in his last days was denied liberty.

Meanwhile, the only part of China where Liu’s death can be openly mourned and freely discussed is in Hong Kong.

Yet, the liberty that the Hong Kong SAR still enjoys is being undermined by the very people who are charged with its defense.

The Chief Executive Carrie Lam had been asked to raise concerns about Liu with the central authorities before his death.

She declined to do so and, using words that will come to haunt her, declared that the authorities were handling his case within the law and with compassion.

Meanwhile, in the legislature, its president made sure that lawmakers wanting to raise a petition concerning Liu were barred from doing so.

In a grim reminder of how the Nazi’s treated Ossietzky’s death, China’s media censors went into overdrive to block comment and ensure that social media posts were removed when mentioning Liu’s name.

The slave pro-Communist press in Hong Kong naturally followed suit but other parts of the media that are supposedly not under the control of the Chinese Communist Party also chose to play down Liu’s demise.

The best-selling Oriental Daily News, for example, found no space on its front page for this story on Friday. TVB, Beijing’s ever reliable friend that enjoys a virtual monopoly of terrestrial free-to-air television broadcasts, ploughed along with its scheduled programming as news of Liu’s death broke.

These are the ways in which the freedom Hong Kong enjoys is being whittled away by people and organizations that can do something about it.

When the Nazi regime was finally defeated, the true believers remained defiant, but those who claimed not to be party members but collaborated with the Nazis whined about having "no choice" but to go along with those in power or pretended that they had no idea of the extent of the regime’s brutality.

It is hardly a stretch to make a comparison between the fate of Ossietzky and Liu, or to set aside the painful similarities between those who collaborate with tyrants today and those who did so in the past.

Liu Xiaobo was known as a moderate in Chinese dissident circles. Indeed he angered many by his stubborn insistence on framing his opposition as being within the terms of the People’s Republic's constitution.

However, the hardline regime that now holds sway in Beijing makes no distinction between moderate and radical opponents; it seems to be almost willing a more violent form of resistance to its rule.

Liu was a man who famously could not be provoked and could not be persuaded to desist.

His death is a tragedy but his memory needs to be honored by fighting to sustain his optimism.

In Liu's final trial, he made a statement to the court which he was not allowed to deliver. In part it said: "I firmly believe that China's political progress will not stop, and I, filled with optimism, look forward to the advent of a future free China. For there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme."

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author