Hermann Aubié, August 9, 2017
About three weeks ago, shortly after the world learned about your terminal liver cancer diagnosis of late May 2017, you died aged 61 in the Northeast region of China where you were born. As the poet Tang Danhong wrote, you departed as “an innocent prisoner into the eternal light” (无罪的囚徒，融入永恒的光芒). What a cruel tragedy to live out your last days in a hospital bed under lock and key after fighting most of your life for freedom and human rights!
Although I’ve never had the chance to meet you in person, I feel like I’ve lost someone very close to me, as if your death has torn away a part of myself. While you were behind bars in Jinzhou prison, I was trying my best to better understand what your human rights struggle was all about and to imagine your thoughts on what happened in China and around the world during the last eight years you spent in prison. More recently, as I was anticipating your release in June 2020, aged 64, I even indulged in imagining your surprise at seeing a young Frenchman coming from nowhere brandishing a newly written book about your struggle for freedom of expression and human rights. There was so much I wanted to talk about together, and I regret that we will no longer have the chance.
Words can hardly express the emotion and revulsion I feel at the injustice and cruelty of the Chinese government. I remain lucky and grateful to have discovered your thoughts and actions through your writings and your friends – it may never be possible to come to terms with your departure and to find closure, but I take comfort in imagining how many people are mourning your loss around the world and taking over the causes and values that you defended by engaging in new and ongoing struggles.
As a student who fell in love with China in the early 2000s and devoured hundreds of books and articles on China to quench my curiosity and satiate the hunger of my ignorance, reading your critical analyses of Chinese politics and society was vastly enlightening. Your works compelled me to question my assumptions and unlearn many of the false narratives that I took for granted about Chinese culture and history. It was thanks to you that I also enjoyed learning the Chinese language – unlike the heavy, wooden register of Chinese officialdom, the language you used felt natural and your arguments more intuitive, especially when it came to our shared human condition and aspiration for universal values.
Before becoming China’s most prominent political prisoner, you first emerged in the mid-1980s as a literary critic and a lecturer in humanities whose growing reputation gave you the opportunity to travel for several months as a visiting scholar to Northern Europe, Hong Kong and the USA.
Then, as the democracy movement of spring 1989 started to unfold while you were in New York City, you refused to watch from a comfortable distance and left Columbia University for Beijing to participate directly in the protests on Tiananmen Square by advising students and raising funds. Over several weeks, you gradually transformed from an observer to one of the leaders of the protests who drafted speeches calling for institutional reforms and rejection of violence. One of your most important contributions was to organize the June 2nd hunger strike with your friends Zhou Duo, Gao Xin, and Hou Dejian, who would later together with you become known as the “Four Gentlemen” (四君子) for successfully negotiating with the leaders of the martial law troops a peaceful withdrawal of thousands of students from Tiananmen Square on the eve of the June 4th massacre (六四大屠杀). Two days later, you got arrested by the authorities who labelled you a “black hand” (黑手) behind the “political turmoil” (政治风波) and detained you for nineteen months in Qincheng prison, China’s “Bastille” for elite prisoners. In the meantime, the state blacklisted your name and expelled you “outside the system” (体制外).
From then on, the party-state had made of you a “criminal” and the Western media a “dissident.” By then, you felt forced to let your first family move abroad so they can start a new life without fear of being persecuted through “relational repression” (关系镇压). After your release from prison, during which you signed a “repentance document” that you will never forgive yourself for, you painfully reflected on the tragic ending of the 1989 protests and felt much guilt as a “survivor of the massacre.”
As a result, you chose to embark on a path of redemption by committing to a long struggle for human rights and constitutional government that would make you suffer and sacrifice your limited freedom for the freedom of others. Over time, sustained by your wife Liu Xia, the love of your life with whom you married in 1996 while in detention in a “Re-education through labour” (劳教) camp of Dalian, you proved to yourself and others that people can change for the better, and you gradually came to embody the promise of a better, kinder and more humane China.
While interviewing your friends, I heard touching stories about your integrity and generosity both as a person and as president of the Independent China PEN Centre, an NGO founded in 2001 to defend the freedom of expression of Chinese writers and journalists who are persecuted for their writings and to support the spouses of those who are imprisoned.
Then, as I got deeper into your writings, I came to understand more clearly your philosophy about how we ought to live and act in everyday life, of the importance of listening to our conscience and rejecting lies. In particular, you highlighted the urgency of unlearning the “enemy mentality” (敌人意识) that the Chinese regime relentlessly instils with its propaganda about “hostile forces” trying to “split China” or “spread chaos” – a false worldview meant to justify the regime’s oppression. In a post-Brexit, Trump era, your message also applies in an increasingly divided Western world blighted by violent racism and scapegoating.
In your 2003 essay titled “Using truth to undermine a system based on lies”, you looked back at your early life under Mao and acknowledged the difficulty of unlearning “Mao Speak” (毛语), especially its Manichean worldview:
I realize that my entire youth was spent in a cultural desert and that my early writings had all been nurtured in hatred, violence, and arrogance − or, alternatively, in lies, cynicism, and loutish sarcasm. These poisons of “Party culture” had permeated several generations of Chinese, and I was no exception. Even in the liberal tides of the 1980s, I had not been able to purge myself of them entirely. I knew at the time that Mao-style thinking and Cultural Revolution-style language had become ingrained in me, and my goal had been to transform myself from the bone marrow out. Hah! − Easier said than done. It may take me a lifetime to rid myself of the poison.
As you then explained in a 2005 essay titled “Gao Zhisheng’s lesson”, one way of getting rid of the poison is to “unlearn ‘dehumanization’ as a distinctive feature of Party culture” (摆脱党文的”非人”) through “introspective awareness” (自省意识) and “self-reflection” (自思), without which a “moral high ground type of arrogance” (“山小”的道德傲慢) could emerge anytime.
But today, looking back at the distressing circumstances of your death, how could our grief and anger not fill us with rage and make us hate that cold-blooded regime who treated you so heartlessly in your last days, and who even went as far as viciously manipulating the public discourse about your hospital treatment and funerals? Despite it all, though, I guess you would still want us to refuse to participate in the regime’s lies, hatred, violence and enmity that “poison hearts and minds” as a way to widen the space for freedom of expression and civil society. Under such conditions, as you persuasively argued, Chinese citizens could then minimize the risks of the regime’s unpredictable repression, and keep organizing solidarity initiatives such as the signature of open letters to call for the release of political prisoners.
When your old friend Bao Zunxin (1937-2007) passed away aged 70, you offered his wife to help organize his funerals despite the threats from the police. This was because, like you, he was seen by the regime as a “hostile element” (敌对分子) since he supported the pro-democracy protests of 1989. As the funeral ceremony got disrupted by police forces, you noted that because “the dead are the most revered” (死者大) in Chinese tradition, the police felt awkward about enforcing order, and you went on blaming the“stupidity”of the higher authorities whose“lack of confidence in their own legitimacy” (对它自身的合法性缺少自信) had yet again led them to order the police to take extreme measures. Before the police interrupted you, you honoured Bao Zunxin as an “enduring spirit of freedom” who paid a price for maintaining his dignity and with whom you shared a “common ideal and passion” by “throwing your selves into the people’s anti-authoritarian human rights struggle.” You both agreed that that the “cynical utilitarianism” of the CCP or what you also called its “pig philosophy,” only encourages political apathy and mindless consumerism that goes against the “mainstream of world civilization”. Finally, you wrote about Bao Zunxin’s work as an “unfinished enlightenment” that you would strive to take over and push forward.
After your arrest in December 2008, the regime’s police, prosecutors and judges (公检法) responded to your advocacy of peaceful dialogue and non-violent gradual political reform by putting you on trial in December 2009. They singled out a few of your writings and the signatures you collected for the moderate political manifesto titled Charter 08 to sentence you under the trumped-up charge of “inciting subversion of state power” to 11 years in prison. In response to the continuing hostility of the Chinese regime, you reaffirmed with calm and eloquence what you stood for 20 years earlier during the democracy protests at Tiananmen Square: “I have no enemy, no hatred” (没有敌人，也没有仇恨). And yet, the regime went on treating you like a top enemy of the state, transferring you from Beijing to Jinzhou Prison in Liaoning Province in order to keep you away from public attention. Adding insult to injury, they even launched a propaganda campaign vilifying you as the “West’s tool” who “will be abandoned by the Chinese people” for “crossing the line of freedom of speech into crime.” Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…
Quite remarkably, in response to your prison sentence which was particularly severe by the standards of that time, many individuals — including many Charter 77 signatories — came together from around the world to nominate you for the 2010 Peace Nobel Prize in honour of your “long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights.” When Liu Xia announced you the award, you cried with sadness and told her that “it should go to all the departed spirits of June Fourth.” As the Chinese regime would not let you attend the ceremony in Oslo, you were represented by an empty chair on the podium which became a symbol of an ongoing protest against your imprisonment that was widely circulated on the internet despite China’s censorship. In a dismal move, the regime chose to react to this expression of solidarity and empathy by ruthlessly detaining Liu Xia at your home, while also sentencing her brother, Liu Hui, to 11 years in prison on another trumped-up charge.
During the 8 years and a half that you spent behind steel gates, countless “human rights disasters” (人权灾难) took place across China and around the world. For example, in March 2014, the female human rights lawyer Cao Shunli died aged 53 after months of detention without receiving adequate medical care. And a year after, the Tibetan Buddhist social and environmental activist Tenzin Delek Rinpoche who was also sentenced to life imprisonment under a fabricated charge eventually died in prison aged 65 without even medical parole.
Tragically, like the female dissident Lin Zhao (1932-1968) who was executed under Mao, all these victims of the regime’s enemy mentality have joined these “departed spirits” (亡灵) who had left us all too soon on that night of June Fourth 1989. The spirit of the “children of June 4th” whom you eulogized every year with poems expressing the great sadness and pain you felt as a survivor, can only hope to find redemption through your struggle for historical justice and human rights.
As you can see today, Chinese human rights advocates and civil society are now facing particularly hard times. And yet, it does not mean that the ideals of human rights and constitutional government are losing traction within Chinese society. As you said, every little act of solidarity or resistance against lies and hatred is meaningful and the long-term implications of living in truth should not be underestimated. Although oppression is worsening under Xi Jinping, I still share your optimism and your dream of a “future free China that lies in civil society” (未来的自由中国在民间). Indeed, despite all the hostilities coming from China’s unelected leaders, many Chinese citizens and their supporters around the world are keeping up the good fight for justice and I’m sure your struggle for freedom of expression, human rights and social justice will remain an eternal source of inspiration for many to come.
My thoughts are now with Liu Xia, who was disappeared since July 15 and who must still be suffering from the “intangible prison of the heart” (无形的心狱). As your ashes spread across the ocean, the regime still won’t let your departed spirit rest in peace by allowing Liu Xia and her brother to live well by moving around freely. Now more than ever, the international community must shout their indignation against the Orwellian brutality of Xi Jinping’s government. It must show its full support until all China’s innocent prisoners of conscience and their families are freed to love and support each other without being driven into exile by fear and suffering.
This would be the most concrete way of ensuring that however cruel were your final years, your efforts to build China’s democratic future were not in vain.
Goodbye Xiaobo, I miss you!
Hermann Aubié 寒涛
Hermann Aubié is a lecturer in sociology and policy at Aston University; he completed his PhD at the Centre for East Asian Studies of the University of Turku (Finland) in 2016 with a dissertation titled “Liu Xiaobo’s Struggle for Human rights: A Contextual Analysis from a Historical Perspective” which is forthcoming as a book.
After doing his BA and MA at the University of Western Brittany in France and the University of Glasgow, he spent five years working in China as a teacher, researcher and consultant for the EU-China Civil Society Dialogue.
Overall, his research focus is on contemporary politics, human rights, and civil society transformations in China and East Asia, with particular attention on how citizens use the law and media to promote socio-political change, and to redress injustice for individuals/groups who are persecuted and discriminated against.
Liu Xiaobo: The Founder of China’s Political Opposition Movements, Wu Qiang, June 30, 2017.
The Path Forward in the Wake of Liu Xiaobo’s Passing, Yaxue Cao, July 16, 2017.
As Liu Xiaobo Dies in Isolation, It’s Time to Abandon ‘Quiet Diplomacy’, Chang Ping, July 18, 2017.
Liu Xiaobo: Walking the Path of Kang Youwei, Spilling His Blood Like Tan Sitong, Wang Dan, July 20, 2017.
Remembering Liu Xiaobo — And What the U. S. Can Do, Yang Jianli, July 22, 2017.