When the Chinese dissident and Nobel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo succumbs to liver cancer, on a day that now seems both inevitable and imminent, the world will not only lose a moral giant. A fierce hope for change, a particular dream of a different China, is also lying on its deathbed in the northern Chinese hospital where Liu’s treatment is being rationed out, by doctors of unknown competence and uncharted loyalties.
Poet, intellectual, champion of peaceful protest, little-known inside China because of censorship but a much-lauded name beyond its borders, Liu embodied the fight he led courageously for nearly three decades.
Always resurgent after jail and harassment, he returned to the fray repeatedly over those years, despite the personal cost. “Even though I might be faced with nothing but a series of tragedies, I will still struggle, still show my opposition,” he said in a 1988 interview, before the Tiananmen Square massacre.
That spirit made change seem possible, perhaps even within his lifetime. His most recent jail sentence, handed down in 2009, was exceptionally severe, but he was still due to emerge at the end of this decade, with release offering the possibility of new writing, a new challenge to authorities.
His death will be convenient for the party he opposed for so long, allowing him to diminish into myth, and leaving no obvious successor.
There are many other dissidents in China – friends, supporters and even rivals of Liu – who face down the growing might of a wealthy authoritarian state with a courage that is hard for anyone protected by the guarantees of a democracy to fully understand.
But today, China seems more tightly controlled than at almost any time since the death of Mao Zedong. Even protests with no overt political agenda, such as feminists opposing sexual harassment, are ruthlessly crushed. The international community defers more to Beijing’s wishes than it has perhaps for centuries. And there is no substitute for the hope Liu offered through his life, as well as through his intellect, long after others had abandoned the idealism of the 1980s.
“Because of him, Chinese history does not come to a stop,” one of his oldest friends, Liao Yiwu, said after he had been awarded the Nobel prize. “After [the Tiananmen Square crackdown of] 1989, many people chose to forget what had happened, chose to go abroad, chose to divert themselves into doing business, or even to working with the government – but he did not.”
Liu first became known as a rebel in the 1980s, one of the most politically open decades in China’s recent history, when internal debates raged about where the country should head as it recovered from the cultural revolution.
“[Democracy] has not been a western preoccupation because when there has been opening up, we see people flock to a demand for freedom within China,” said Stein Ringen, emeritus professor at the University of Oxford and author of The Perfect Dictatorship: China in the 21st Century. “All through the 1980s, things were quite fluid, in part because there wasn’t really agreement in the leadership on what the [political] direction should be.”
Liu rose to international prominence during the Tiananmen Square protests, abandoning a position at Columbia University in the US to join students there. Jailed for his role, he took up the fight again after his release. He was never free from surveillance once he had raised his head above the parapet, often harassed, repeatedly jailed. He did not become an accidental hero. “If you want to enter hell, don’t complain of the dark; you can’t blame the world for being unfair if you start on the path of the rebel,” he said, in early writings quoted by translator and friend Geremie Barthe.
The crackdown in Tiananmen Square ushered in an era of international isolation, but censure could not survive the siren call of Chinese markets indefinitely, and Beijing was keen to mend the rift, seal its rapid rise in international standing. After China’s accession to the WTO in 2001, and in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, the door towards reform seemed to open a crack again.
This was the China I came to know as a correspondent with Reuters, where authorities continued to jail dissidents, but lawyers, journalists and activists pushed the boundaries of state control and sometimes won victories too.
I even met Liu briefly then, though such was his reputation I was left virtually mute so remember little from the encounter but exchanging greetings.
Soon after, he would take on the authorities, be jailed, then awarded the Nobel prize, after joining forces with other dissidents to draft Charter 08. It was a call for change based on the anti-Soviet Charter 77, drawn up by activists in the former Czechoslovakia, also named for the year it was written, and radical only in the challenge they posed authorities.
“When Charter 08 was signed, there was a yearning for more open dialogue and talk about a peaceful societal transition,” Ai Xiaoming scholar and documentary filmmaker in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou who signed the charter told the New York Times. “But now there is even more strict social control, and the room for civil society has shrunk significantly.”
Liu himself is fading, his final words and thoughts may collected imperfectly in some kind of brief outline, but as he is already reported to be severely ill, they may also be lost entirely.
The foreign support that might have bolstered his friends and buoyed dissidents taking on his legacy has been conspicuous by its absence or muted tone. Even Norway, which hosts the Nobel prize committee, has stayed silent on Liu’s illness, perhaps influenced by new ties with Beijing.
China’s economic might, and President Xi Jinping’s search for absolute control means that Liu’s death brings a curtain down on a period where hope survived,, even if it did not always flourish, and ushers in something darker.
“It’s very hard to see any organised opposition now emerging, or any person able to take a real position of authority against the regime,” Ringen said. “About these matters I am extremely pessimistic. I see absolutely no room for speaking out.”