'A symbol of courage': Remembering Chinese Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo


For China Liu Xiaobo was an enemy of the state, but for those close to him he was a champion of democracy and an icon of free expression.

China's Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo has died aged 61 of liver cancer as a political prisoner in a hospital in China's northeast.

The writer and activist, often compared to Nelson Mandela, spent his last days as he did much of his life: under close watch of the one-party government he railed against.

He had served more half of an 11 year sentence for ‘inciting subversion’ against the Chinese government by writing a political manifesto calling for greater democratic rights in China.

“He sacrificed his whole life. His family, his everything, to that country” says Chen Yonglin, a leader of Sydney’s Network for Democracy.

Liu's death is testament to 'brutal' China: Ai Weiwei
Liu's death is testament to 'brutal' China: Ai Weiwei

Liu Xiaobo was born into one of China’s first generations to be raised after the country’s Cultural Revolution.

Receiving a PhD in literature, he was branded a 'black horse' early in his academic career.

“He was notorious for tipping sacred cows,” friend Australia author Linda Jaivin told SBS World News.

Ms Jaivin lived in Beijing in the 1980s and moved in the same literary circles as Mr Liu.

“He was very intellectual, very confident. He would attack people that everybody thought were the greatest writers and the greatest poets. He was quite controversial in his opinions and very good fun also,” Ms Jaivin said.

Mr Liu’s provocative writing would soon turn to impassioned protest.

Protesting at Tiananmen Square

When the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests broke out Liu was a visiting scholar at America’s Colombia University.

He rushed home to support the students, becoming a key protest figure. He gave rousing speeches, and famously joined a hunger strike.

Most significantly he is credited with saving many lives by helping to negotiate peaceful retreat for students out of the square.

His former student Wu’er Kaixi, who now lives in Taiwan, says Mr Liu was a mentor figure for many.

“He taught me how to represent a challenging voice to government. He was the guidance of the student movement,” says Mr Wu’er.

During the days following the massacre Mr Liu, along with other activist friends, took refuge in Australian diplomat Nicholas Jose’s Beijing apartment.

When the area was evacuated Mr Jose offered Mr Liu refuge at the Australian embassy.

“He could have come inside the gates to safety, he would have been in the jurisdiction of the Australian embassy if he did that. But he decided no, he wanted to meet his friends and take his chance,” he told SBS World News.

Now a writer and professor at Adelaide University, Mr Jose says that moment is the most precious memory of his friend.

Liu Xiaobo speaking in 2010
Liu Xiaobo speaking in 2010

“I will always remember that handshake outside the embassy that night. He borrowed my clothes. He was wearing my jeans and my jacket, and off he went.”

Mr Jose and Ms Jaivin were horrified to learn Mr Liu was apprehended in the street by an unmarked van just hours later.

He spent 18 months in jail, the first of many stints in detention. But despite heavy surveillance and censorship Liu Xiaobo continued to publish abroad, unwavering in his condemnation of China’s lack of freedom.

“The way I see it, people like me live in two prisons in China” Mr Liu told the ABC’s Four Corners program in 2010.

“You come out of the small fenced-in prison, only to enter the bigger fence-less prison of society.”

While free he often travelled, lecturing in Australia in 1993. But Mr Liu never sought asylum from China.

“He was passionate about China and its future. I think he knew that’s where his destiny was,” Mr Jose said.

Yang Jianli on Liu Xiaobo
Yang Jianli on Liu Xiaobo

2008 manifesto

It was at a labour camp that Liu Xiaobo met the love of his life, poet Liu Xia, in 1995. Their relationship would face constant upheaval.

On Christmas day 2009, Liu Xiaobo was arrested for the final time. A year earlier he had finished co-authoring 'Charter 08’, a manifesto calling for peaceful political reform.

“He was falsely accused, wrongly being put in jail” says artist Ai Wei Wei speaking from Berlin.

“There are many Liu Xiaobos in China.”

Nobel peace prize

China’s efforts to silence the dissident were derailed a year later, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize.

“He advocated non-violence and peaceful protest. He sought reform through the proper channels. What’s incredible is that China, a rich and powerful country, should be so frightened by that,” Mr Jose said.

Furious, Beijing put his wife Liu Xia under house arrest. Friends say during this time she suffered from depression and was often ill.

Their separation would last until only weeks ago, when it was announced Liu Xiaobo was dying. He was released on medical parole and relocated from a prison to Shenyang hospital, but still in custody.

Two foreign doctors from the US and Germany were invited to assess his condition, but pleas for Mr Liu to be allowed abroad for treatment were ignored.

A statement later released by the German embassy noted it seemed security personnel, and not doctors, were supervising Mr Liu’s treatment.

A protester signs a book of condolences for jailed Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo outside the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong, July 13, 2017.

A diplomatic stand-off ensued with governments and human rights groups urging compassion for Mr Liu to receive treatment abroad, but Beijing’s response remained unchanged.

As Mr Liu lived out his last days, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang repeated from the department’s podium, “we hope countries can respect China's judicial sovereignty and not interfere in China's internal affairs”.

With friends barred from visiting, Mr Liu’s only comfort was Liu Xia. He often wrote of her devotion as his source of strength, paying tribute to her in his famous speech to a Chinese court, ‘I have no enemies’.

“Even if I were crushed into powder,” he declared, “I would still use my ashes to embrace you."

Ms Jaivin says she is thinking of Mr Liu's wife.

“The horror she must feel is almost impossible to imagine."

For many, Mr Liu represented hope for a nation oppressed by the iron-fisted rule of a one-party state.

“He stood up and spoke to power, very very strong armed power. Militirised power, without fear,” Ms Jaivin said.

“He was a symbol of courage,” Mr Jose said.

“An example of someone who does say what he believes, whatever the consequences. And there are not many people like that.”

-with AP

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