By Jean-Philippe Béja, academic and China specialist
“I dedicate this prize to all those lost souls who have sacrificed their lives in non-violent struggle for peace, democracy and freedom.” – Liu Xiaobo, upon learning in prison that he was to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Nobel Committee’s decision to award this year’s Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo is undoubtedly a tribute to the memory of the 1989 pro-democracy movement that the Chinese government has been consistently trying to erase over the last two decades.
“June 1989 was the major turning point in my 50 years on life’s road,” Liu declared at his trial in December 2009.
This road had been fairly smooth until that day. Born in Changchun in northern China on 28 December 1955, Liu Xiaobo’s itinerary had been typical for his generation.
The son of a university professor, during the Cultural Revolution he followed his parents to the Inner Mongolian countryside, where he stayed from 1969 till 1973. He then spent more than two years in a rural people’s commune in his home province of Jilin, and was given a job as a construction worker in Changchun in 1976.
When Communist Party Chair Hua Guofeng re-established the national university entrance examination in 1977, Xiaobo was admitted to the Chinese department of Jilin University. He graduated in 1982 and entered Beijing Normal University where he was awarded his Ph.D in 1988.
Liu Xiaobo did not take part in the pro-democracy movement of the late 1970s. While Wei Jingsheng and his comrades were fighting for democracy, Liu was interested only in literature, writing poems, and reading Western philosophy.
He made a name as a literary critic when, in 1986, he wrote an article denouncing Chinese writers’ dependence on the state and their inability to think for themselves. The article had an enormous impact and he was labeled the “black horse” of China’s literary scene.
In the vibrant intellectual atmosphere of the late 1980s, his provocative ideas attracted the attention of the intelligentsia; he was invited to give lectures all over China, and abroad.
He was a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York when the 1989 pro-democracy movement erupted in China. Whereas many of his colleagues at home were seeking ways to go abroad, Liu immediately returned to China and spent most of his time in Tiananmen Square.
Although he kept criticizing them, the student leaders respected him and debated with him. On the eve of the massacre, he launched a hunger strike with three comrades to protest the imminent repression by the People’s Liberation Army. On the night of 3 June, he negotiated a peaceful evacuation of Tiananmen Square with the army.
Having found refuge in a diplomatic compound, he couldn’t stand being safe while Beijing citizens and students were persecuted. Consequently, he left his apartment and was arrested on 6 June. Labelled a “black hand” behind the movement, he spent 20 months at Qincheng jail in Beijing.
On his release, he was a changed man. He wrote no more about literature, but joined the struggle for democracy, publishing articles in the Hong Kong media criticizing the Chinese government, and organizing petitions to denounce human rights violations.
The 4 June massacre had completely changed his outlook. Although he was criticized by dissidents for having said in an interview with state media that he had not personally seen the deaths in the Square, he has dedicated most of his energy to preserving the memory of the massacre – while refusing to lie simply for the sake of rousing the enthusiasm of the democracy movement.
The massacre changed his view of the ordinary Chinese people. A man who had been interested mostly in debating with the elites, discovered the courage, the intelligence, and the political sophistication of the common people – the lao bai xing.
The sacrifice of the people led him to act according to his principles. Liu Xiaobo, very much like Vaclav Havel, was convinced that the most effective weapon against the government was “living in truth”. “To refuse to lie in public life represents the most effective force to undermine tyranny,” he said.
He refused to use pen-names in order to be allowed to publish his articles, and accepted that he would remain outside the system.
From his release from prison in 1991 until his latest arrest in 2008, he has lived under the watchful eyes of the police. But this hasn’t kept him from acting in accordance with his ideals.
Liu Xiaobo has worked hand in hand with the Tiananmen Mothers, whose objective is to force the government to acknowledge the massacre and rehabilitate the victims.
He has organized petitions against the arrest of writers imprisoned for the texts they have posted on the internet. He has written in defence of workers who protested the corruption of their factory managers, and has organized appeals to defend the rights of migrant workers.
The former university professor also enjoys the respect of people inside the system; the consistency of his ideas and his courage over the last two decades have impressed many in China, including Party members.
Liu Xiaobo has organized petitions with 1989 activists, with young intellectuals who have fallen victim to government repression, and with elder Party members formerly allied with the reformist senior Party official Hu Yaobang, whose death in 1989 sparked the student demonstrations. In the process, he has gained the esteem of the various groups and generations of the pro-democracy movement.
His writings in support of China’s burgeoning “rights defence” or weiquan movement, and his interventions in favour of workers and young intellectuals, have made him a central figure in China’s emerging civil society.
People from all walks of life admire his courage and his consistency. He hasn’t hesitated to go to prison for his ideas. When, in 1996, veteran dissident Wang Xizhe asked him to sign an appeal to the Communist Party and the Taiwanese Kuomintang to collaborate to save China, he accepted: “I wasn’t convinced, but I had a great respect for Wang Xizhe.” He paid for this respect with three years in Re-education Through Labour. But this still didn’t deter him from acting for democracy.
In the late 2000s, he worked with others to organize Charter 08, a manifesto inspired by Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, asking for the introduction of real democracy in China through separation of powers, the end to one-party rule, and a federal system.
Liu was not the main drafter of the manifesto, but took a key role in gathering signatories. His arrest gave the Charter great resonance, and it has now been signed by over 10,000 Chinese citizens from all walks of life.
The Charter 08 movement is not an organization which threatens the Communist party’s grip on power in any way. It is only a symptom that in many circles, the idea of real democracy is growing.
However, the communist leaders have a different opinion. They consider it an attempt at subversion, and Liu Xiaobo has paid the prize. The 11-year sentence meted out on him on Christmas Day, 2009, is one of the heaviest ever for the crime of “incitement to subvert the state”.
Subversion is the least suitable description of Liu Xiaobo’s activities; he has always acted in the plain light of day.
Even if he had wanted to work underground, the fact that he has been followed by the police since his release in 1991, would have made it impossible.
Let us face the facts: Liu Xiaobo has been imprisoned because his ideas differ from those of the powers that be.