- Liu Xiaobo (1955–2017)
On July 13, imprisoned Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo died of liver cancer, after long being denied appropriate medical treatment. A well-known essayist and poet, he was arrested just after the Tiananmen Square massacre for his support of the protesters. After spending a year and a half in prison, he continued his work as an underground writer, only to be imprisoned again in 1995. Barely a half-year after his release, he was arrested once more for his writings and sentenced to three years in a labor camp, from which he emerged in 1999. During the 2000s he resumed his writing career, was elected to serve as chair of the writers’ group Independent Chinese PEN Center, and took on the editorship of the online journal Democratic China.
In 2008, Liu played a leading role in drafting and recruiting signatories for Charter 08, a manifesto for democracy and human rights in China modeled on Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77. Detained by police in December 2008, he was formally arrested on 23 June 2009 on charges of “inciting subversion of state power,” and in December of that year was tried and sentenced to eleven years in prison. In 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, but was unable to leave prison to receive the award. At the award ceremony in Oslo, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee famously placed the medal and citation on an empty chair.
On September 7, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) organized a memorial symposium in Washington, D.C., honoring Liu’s life and legacy. The event, which began with brief opening remarks by NED Board Chairman Judy Shelton, was moderated by NED President Carl Gershman. The panelists, all of whom had been involved in some way with Liu and his work, were Louisa Greve, a vice-president at NED; noted China scholar Perry Link of the University of California, Riverside; Xiao Qiang, editor-in-chief of China Digital Times; scholar and human-rights activist Xiaorong Li; and Andrew Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science at Columbia University. Below we present brief excerpts from their remarks, based on some informal written texts and on transcriptions of the oral presentations. In some places these have been lightly edited. But we urge readers who wish to get a fuller sense of the eloquence of the speakers and the atmosphere of the event to view the video at www.ned.org/events/liu-xiaobo-and-the-future-of-china. [End Page 185]
We chose to call this event, which is devoted to the legacy of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, a memorial symposium. And yes, it’s a memorial, a solemn reflection and deep tribute to a man who was denied proper medical treatment and who died while held captive under authoritarian control. We could express our sadness, and even our anger about that. But through this symposium, we are channeling our shared feelings into a level of engagement with the forces of repression that Liu Xiaobo would approve. We are taking heart by thinking through his words and his deeds. . . . Together, we draw strength and inspiration to embrace the freedoms boldly championed by Liu Xiaobo, a man who before his sentencing in 2009 stood before the court and declared, “To block freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, to strangle humanity, and to suppress the truth.”
Liu Xiaobo’s contribution to democracy was monumental, and his analysis of Chinese politics and society—and his warnings about the danger to the world of a rising and dictatorial China—remain profoundly relevant today. We couldn’t share Liu Xiaobo’s suffering, but we can try to understand his ideas, appreciate his example, and find inspiration in his vision of a different China.
“The struggle of man against power,” Milan Kundera has said, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” We are here today to remember Liu Xiaobo and understand his legacy. This is a profoundly important and significant contribution to this struggle of memory against forgetting.
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