Who is Liu Xiaobo? French sinologist Jean-Philippe Béja, a specialist in Liu’s work and the Chinese pro-democracy movement, has written a short biography of the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
On 8 October, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded for the first time to a Chinese citizen living in China, even if he is serving an 11-year jail sentence in Jinzhou prison in the northeastern province of Liaoning. On learning the news, Liu Xiaobo said: “I dedicate this prize to the lost souls of June 4th.” He was referring to the date of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre
Liu knows the northeast well. He was born in the city of Changchun on 28 December 1955 and went to university there in 1977 after a visit to Inner Mongolia, two years in the countryside in Jilin and a stint with a construction company in Changchun. It was his generation’s standard itinerary. After getting a bachelor’s degree in literature, he was admitted to Beijing Normal University in 1982 to do a master’s degree. It was while studying for a PhD that he became known for an article he wrote criticising China’s “new wave” writers for not cutting the umbilical cord with the authorities. In the speech that made him famous in 1986, he accused the post-Mao cultural establishment of being obsessed with winning Nobel prizes!
An heir of the May fourth movement and deliberately provocative, Liu practiced a Nietzschean cult of the individual and took little interest in politics. He had not participated in the 1978-79 Beijing Spring, although he belonged to that generation. The auditorium was packed when he defended his thesis. People were flocking to his lectures at the time and his popularity drew the attention of foreign sinologists. He was invited to Norway (already!) and was a guest professor at Columbia University when the pro-democracy movement erupted in the spring of 1989.
While many intellectuals in China were seeking ways to go abroad in case things turned bad, Liu rushed back in order to get involved in the movement. By mid-May, he was spending most of his time alongside the students in Tiananmen Square. He did not hesitate to criticize their behaviour but they did not hold it against him and continued to discuss things with him. On 2 June 1989, when the rumours of an army intervention were getting more insistent, Liu and three of his comrades began a hunger strike against the imminent crackdown. On the night of the massacre, he convinced the students of the need to negotiate a peaceful evacuation of the square with the army. Liu was the one who took charge of the negotiation, thereby preventing even greater bloodshed.
He took refuge in the Australian embassy but could not bear to remain in a safe place while citizens and students who had taken part in the movement were being hunted down, arrested and executed. He was arrested while cycling in Beijing on 8 June and spent the next 20 months in Qincheng prison, dubbed the “20th century Bastille” by Wei Jingsheng. It was a different Liu who left the prison: “My eyes were opened by 4 June and the death of the martyrs and now, every time I open my mouth, I ask myself if I am worthy of them.” The courage of those citizens and the determination of the students had moved him deeply, and since then he has never stopped fighting for the authorities to acknowledge the massacre.
The young Nietzschean provocateur was no more. From 1991 onwards, Liu devoted himself solely to the defence of fundamental rights. Joining the disparate pro-democracy movement, he launched petition upon petition in defence of those who founded independent unions, those who dared to criticize the authorities and those who stood up to the modern day Leviathan, as well as petitions calling for justice for the victims of the 4 June massacre, obviously.
In the course of this struggle, he met Ding Zilin and the Tiananmen Mothers, who were also fighting for the government to acknowledge the massacre. He also fought alongside Bao Zunxin, the cofounder of the Autonomous Association of Beijing Intellectuals, who was fired from the Academy of Social Sciences when he left prison, and joined the opposition. Together they wrote articles and launched petitions.
His activities resulted in his being placed under house arrest for nine months in 1995. The next year, veteran dissident Wang Xizhe asked him to co-sign a petition calling for a new period of cooperation between the Kuomintang and the Communist Party. “I was not really convinced but I had (and still have) a lot of respect for Wang Xizhe so I signed.” Wang, who lived in Guangzhou, secretly went to Hong Kong after signing, while Liu received a visit from the police. On 8 October 1996, he was sentenced to three years of reeducation through labour. As soon as he was released, he resumed his activities within the movement and launched new petitions. Even if the petitions were not accessible in China, he thought it was necessary to demand respect for one’s rights.
The post-4 June Liu Xiaobo is convinced that submitting to despotism is unacceptable. As he has often written, the regime is no longer as violent as it was in Mao Zedong’s time and resisting its lies is no longer so risky. Like Vaclav Havel, he affirms his intention to live the truth. He refuses to write his political articles under a pseudonym, even if that prevents them from being published in China. He refuses to tone down his criticism in order to be published. In short, he rejects any form of compromise with the government and stands by his principles.
This does not prevent him from recognising the progress achieved in China, and not just in the economic realm. He is convinced that by resisting, by pressing for their rights to be respected, China’s citizens are forcing the Party to retreat. He hails the progress that has been made by Chinese society (minjian) even if it does not concern him as someone who has lived under political police surveillance ever since leaving prison in 1991.
As well as the political columns he writes for the Hong Kong press or posts on the Internet (which he calls “God’s gift to China”), Liu has taken part in all sorts of initiatives aimed at achieving political reform. The latest was Charter 08, a manifesto inspired by Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77. It calls for real democracy in China, with separation of powers, an end to the one-party rule and the creation of a federation so that the ethnic minorities rights are protected. He was not its main author but he made a major contribution to its dissemination as he is able to serve as a bridge between the different generations and different groups of dissidents.
He is appreciated as much by old guard Party members loyal to Hu Yaobang as by Democracy Wall activists. A protagonist of the 1989 movement, he enjoys the esteem of that era’s students. His commitment to the defence of civil rights has won him the support of that movement’s activists. This was seen on the day of his trial, when dozens of petitioners turned up in a show of solidarity.
Liu does not act like a hero. He is a man who likes to live well, a man who writes love poems to his wife Liu Xia. But behind that apparent gentleness, lies an iron will. Regardless of the risks, he never compromises on his principles and does not think twice about going to prison for the sake of his ideas. Because, in a sense, he is a survivor who feels he is still being watched by all those who were killed in the Tiananmen Square massacre. It was not by chance that he dedicated his Nobel Peace Prize to the “lost souls” of June 4th.
Jean-Philippe Béja’s interview: