first Nobel Peace Prize winner dies in custody since Nazi era

A man in front of a poster of Liu Xiaobo at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo in 2010.Credit Odd Andersen/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Original title: Liu Xiaobo, we miss you!

The Mandela of our age is dead, and Liu Xiaobo will at least now find peace after decades of suffering outrageous mistreatment by the Chinese authorities.

Liu, 61, is the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in custody since the Nazi era, and his death is an indictment of China’s brutal treatment of one of the great figures of modern times.

Even as Liu was dying of cancer, China refused to allow Liu to travel for treatment that might have saved his life. In a move that felt crass and disgusting, the Chinese authorities filmed the dying Liu without his consent to make propaganda films falsely depicting merciful treatment of him.

In the coming weeks, China will probably try to dispose of Liu’s remains in a way that will prevent his grave from becoming a democratic pilgrimage spot. The authorities no doubt will attempt to bully and threaten Liu’s brave widow, Liu Xia, and perhaps confine her indefinitely under house arrest to keep her silent.

Will Western leaders speak up for her? I fear not, any more than they forcefully spoke up for Liu Xiaobo himself.

If the way Liu died is an indictment of China’s repression, it also highlights the cravenness of Western leaders who were too cowed to raise his case in a meaningful manner. President Trump met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Hamburg at the G-20- summit and did not even let the name Liu Xiaobo pass his lips. For shame, all around.

Liu Xiaobo died with dignity and honor, true to his principles. Everybody else, not so much.

Some day after democracy has come to China, there will be a memorial in Tiananmen Square to Liu. There will never be a memorial there in free China to Xi, who has overseen a harsh crackdown on dissent on his watch, leaving China substantially less free.

For those of you who don’t know Liu, a few glimpses of him:

1. He was a brilliant professor who in the spring of 1989 was a visiting scholar safely ensconced at Columbia University. But when the Tiananmen student democracy protests began, he rushed back to China to support the protesters. When the troops opened fire on protesters on the night of June 3-4, 1989, he could have fled but stayed to negotiate with the Army and arrange a safe exit for students from the center of Tiananmen Square. In the 1990’s as well, he could have moved to the West, but instead he stayed to fight for freedom in his own country

2. His was also a great love story, and the Chinese brutalized his wife, Liu Xia, to put pressure on him. Liu Xia was emotionally fragile, and although she was never even charged with any crime she was confined to house arrest. The Chinese government knew that Liu Xiaobo would never crack, so it deliberately inflicted great isolation and suffering on his wife to gain leverage over him. Yet the couple persevered, and he once wrote a beautiful tribute to her: “Your love is the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window, stroking every inch of my skin, warming every cell of my body … and filling every minute of my time in prison with meaning.

3. Dissidents are often unreasonable people, for it takes something special to risk everything and challenge an oppressive state. Liu Xiaobo started out his career unreasonable, as an enfant terrible academic, but steadily became more moderate and reasonable in his career. His call for democracy, Charter 08, is a model of reasonableness, and he periodically complimented his persecutors on their professionalism to make clear that he did not resent them—and that is one reason I compare him to Mandela.

4. It’s not clear that President Xi bears responsibility for Liu’s death, but that may well be the case. Although Liu died of liver cancer and had had hepatitis, a risk factor, Chinese prisons are notorious for their poor medical care, and prison authorities often deny medical care to dissidents as a way of putting pressure on them. It seems to me quite plausible that Liu’s cancer would have been discovered earlier, when it was more treatable, if he had not been incarcerated.

5. Liu’s death in custody is also a window into how far backward Xi has taken China. For parts of the 1990’s and 2000’s, Liu was free and able to write for overseas and Internet publications. (I last spoke to him shortly before his arrest in 2008; State Security cut the phone connection after I identified myself.) China under Xi is less free than China was 20 years ago. I wrote an open letter to Liu a few days ago, describing him as perhaps the man I admire most, and I wish he could have seen it—but I’m sure the authorities did not allow him to do so.

6. Most Chinese have never heard of Liu Xiaobo, because the state propaganda apparatus has suppressed discussion of him. Thus the paradox: The first person to win a Nobel for work in China has died, and he is little mourned in his own land. Yet for those of us who followed his extraordinarily important and courageous work over the decades, there is a great sense of emptiness and sadness—not so much sadness for Liu himself, who is now free of persecution, but sadness for China’s backward march and sadness for the timidity of world leaders at the brutalization of one of the great men of modern times. There is so much we can learn from Liu’s courage, decency and vision, and some time I look forward to placing flowers at the memorial to him at Tiananmen Square.


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