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Remembering Liu Xiaobo — And What the U. S. Can Do

By Yang Jianli, July 22, 2017

“The U.S. should implement targeted sanctions against those personally responsible for Liu Xiaobo’s death. The U.S. can use the Global Magnitsky Act as a tool to sanction them—banning them from traveling in the U.S. and freezing their assets in this country—and also encourage its allies to do the same. It should also consider trade sanctions. In addition, the U.S. can honor Liu Xiaobo’s life and legacy by passing legislation to permanently rename the street in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC as ‘Liu Xiaobo Plaza.’”


Liu Xiaobo_Yang Jianli

Photo: The Royal House of Norway



The world lost a hero when China’s only Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Liu Xiaobo, died of liver cancer in Chinese custody on July 13, 2017.

In life as well as in death Liu Xiaobo represents the best of what China can ever be. He possessed a moral authority unimaginable to his persecutors, and his legacy of love, justice, and sacrifice will surely far outlive the deeds of those who persecuted him. His spirit will be an uplifting and unifying force that will inspire more Chinese people to fight to realize his dream—indeed, the common dream of the Chinese people. To the world, he represents the universal values that all democracies embrace, and he stands for the unwavering struggle of unfree people. Liu Xiaobo is a representative of universal ideas that resonate with millions of people all over the world.

Chinese human rights and democracy advocates had all hoped that Liu Xiaobo would one day complete his unjust prison sentence, and then reengage in his passionate quest for human rights and democracy in China, and also perhaps one day be able to savor the fruits of his life’s work. But instead, he is gone. Now, more than ever, it is critical to demand justice for Liu Xiaobo’s death, to lend a helping hand to assist his widow, Liu Xia, and other members of his family, and to fight in every way possible to honor the legacy of his courage and sacrifice.

Many suspect that the Chinese officials intentionally concealed Liu Xiaobo’s illness from him and his family, and intentionally hastened his death by denying him proper care. Liu Xiaobo’s cancer was reportedly diagnosed on May 23 during an emergency hospital visit because of internal bleeding. However, the news of his late-stage cancer did not become known until late June. During this time, his tumor enlarged from 5-6 cm to 11-12 cm. As early as 2010, Liu Xiaobo was suspected of suffering from hepatitis B, but the Chinese authorities never allowed him to receive a proper diagnosis and treatment. Moreover, Liu Xiaobo reportedly had two CT tests in 2016, which likely would have revealed large liver tumors. Medical parole in China is a political, rather than a medical, decision. In Liu Xiaobo’s case it was up to China’s top leaders to decide. What they chose was a thinly disguised death sentence.

Liu Xiaobo had been held incommunicado since December 2008 until he became terminally ill and was eventually allowed a visit by a German and an American doctor following an international outcry. During his entire imprisonment, he was not allowed to discuss current events, nor the persecutions that his wife Liu Xia and her family suffered. When Liu Xiaobo’s worsening condition became public, 154 Nobel laureates, human rights activists around the globe, and a handful of world leaders called for his immediate release and medical treatment overseas. Liu Xiaobo himself also expressed his wish to seek medical treatment abroad and to die in free country. Tragically, the Chinese regime callously disregarded these requests. After persecuting him for so many years, the regime didn’t give a second thought to denying him his final wish.

Without a doubt, the Chinese communist regime is responsible for Liu Xiaobo’s death. However, the policy of appeasement carried out by democracies towards China’s human rights abuses has made them accomplices to Liu Xiaobo’s slow and stealthy murder. It is a sad and disturbing fact that many leaders of the free world, who themselves hold democracy and human rights in high regard, have been less willing to stand up for those rights for the benefit of others. If the world continues to acquiesce to China’s aggression against its own people, Liu Xiaobo’s tragedy will be repeated, and the democratic ideal and the security of all free peoples will be in jeopardy.

The tragic death of Liu Xiaobo should give all of us a stronger sense of urgency in helping prisoners of conscience of China. It is a legitimate concern that now we can expect more human rights activists will languish and disappear in Chinese prisons: Wang Bingzhang, Hu Shigen, Zhu Yufu, Ilham Tohti, Tashi Wangchuk, Wang Quanzhang, Jiang Tianyong, Tang Jingling, Wu Gan, Guo Feixiong, Liu Xianbin, Chen Wei, Zhang Haitao… the list goes on. If American advocacy for human rights and justice is to mean anything at all, the U.S. government must do more to support these political prisoners and to hold accountable the Chinese government and individuals who so brazenly abuse the fundamental rights of its people.

The U.S. can also do more to help Liu Xiaobo’s family. The Trump administration should make it an urgent priority to help Liu Xia leave China for a country of her choosing. The U.S. should implement targeted sanctions against those personally responsible for Liu Xiaobo’s death. The U.S. can use the Global Magnitsky Act as a tool to sanction them—banning them from traveling in the U.S. and freezing their assets in this country—and also encourage its allies to do the same. It should also consider trade sanctions. In addition, the U.S. can honor Liu Xiaobo’s life and legacy by passing legislation to permanently rename the street in front of the Chinese Embassy in Washington DC as “Liu Xiaobo Plaza.”

To fight for the ideals of human rights and democracy, Liu Xiaobo sacrificed his career, his freedom, and now, his life. But we cannot give up on him. We have to seek justice for Liu Xiaobo’s death at the hands of the Chinese regime, and we have to prevent the tragedy that awaits his widow, Liu Xia, if we do not act immediately to help her get out of China, and we have to preserve the legacy of Liu Xiaobo’s struggle for a democratic and free China.




Dr. Yang Jianli (杨建利)

Yang Jianli (杨建利) is the President of Initiatives for China, a Washington, D. C.-based NGO devoted to promoting human rights and political change in China. 







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.




The Two Tank Men

By Yang Jianli, published: December 7, 2015


Tank Man

In Washington, D.C. recently, my friend Alan Curtis invited me to watch Chimerica, which was written by the British playwright Lucy Kirkwood. The play focuses on finding clues to the identity of Tank Man, the iconic and still unknown protester from Tiananmen Square, and explores the contemporary relationship between China and the West. During my three hours in the theater, my mind repeatedly returned to Tiananmen Square, where I was a participant in the 1989 democracy movement, and a witness to the ensuing massacre.

The photograph of the Tank Man on Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue confronting state violence is one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. For more than two decades, people around the world have wondered what became of him. But both he and his fate remain unknown—though his name is thought to be Wang Weilin.

Twenty-six years ago, just after the massacre had taken place, the Chinese regime tried to use the photo of Tank Man as proof that the military had responded to the “thugs” with restraint. The world was not fooled. On the morning of June 4, 1989, I personally witnessed four tanks running over demonstrators at Liubukou on Chang’an Avenue. At least eleven of them were killed or injured. Among the victims was Fang Zheng, who lost his legs and now lives in San Francisco. My prison poem “The Unusual June” described what I saw at Liubukou: “Bloodying hooves of the iron beast / bodies flattened with angry eyes.”

In the famous scene caught by an American journalist, however, a column of tanks in fact showed restraint as it confronted the young man. It is possible that the soldier in the first tank acted not in accordance with military orders but out of his own moral conviction, and got punished for it. Indeed, Pico Lyer, writing for Time magazine, opined: “The heroes of the tank picture are two: the unknown figure who risked his life by standing in front of the juggernaut and the driver who rose to the moral challenge by refusing to mow down his compatriot.”

In Chimerica, the search for the Tank Man leads to a man named Wang Pengfei who is the brother of the tank driver, or the other tank man.

Wang Pengfei reveals that his brother was executed by the Chinese military for upholding his conscience. He tearfully cries, “My brother, the tank driver, he is also a hero!”

Although this is a creative imagining, it is not far-fetched. At that moment in Chang’an Avenue, outside the Grand Beijing Hotel, two brave young Chinese men came face to face. They both may have sacrificed their lives in ways unknown to outsiders. As I put it in “The Unusual June”: “Each one’s star lighting the other’s way to heaven.”

Heroic feats often happen in moments that go unnoticed. In June of 1989, the streets of Beijing witnessed many Chinese like Wang Weilin, standing face-to-face with soldiers. They may have been Wang Weilin, Xu Qin, Yan Heran, or Zhang Mingchun. When tanks were on the streets, some Chinese soldiers opposed the order to massacre. Chimerica reminds us that those who stand opposite us are not necessarily our enemies, and that common sense and conscience can prevail even under brutal circumstances.

I am convinced that no matter how difficult the road ahead, the general direction of China’s future can only be towards freedom and democracy. The dynamics of democratic movements do not exist only among dissidents. Although the Chinese communist regime has become increasingly unwilling to reform politically, some individuals within the system don’t wish to stand in the way of history.

In Chimerica, this unsung hero has sacrificed his life. In reality, those within the system who refuse to betray their consciences generally do not pay so high a price. They nonetheless need considerable moral courage to face the risks and pressure. Any police or military officer, and any one in the authoritarian state machinery, can be a hero if they are willing to “raise their guns an inch higher” when implementing an order of suppression. Their names may be unknown, but they will be heroes of the historical process. Just like the Tank Man.

Part of the pain in my heart I felt when watching Chimerica came from one very vivid experience. On the morning of June 4, 1989, when the troops were killing people at various locations in Beijing, I saw a soldier on Chang’an Avenue in front of the Telegraph Building. He was obviously separated from the troops, and he had no helmet or gun. He looked like a teenager. The people I was with chased him out of sadness and anger. I gave him a punch, and my companion Huang Liping gave him a kick. More and more people gathered and beat him up. Knocked to the ground, the soldier screamed: “I didn’t do it! I didn’t shoot!” Suddenly I realized that a tragedy was taking place. By then it was impossible to stop the violence. In desperation, Huang and I left the scene without looking back. A few minutes later, I knew from the loud voices behind me that the soldier had been killed. Huang and I silently shed tears.

That young soldier was perhaps one of the tank men in the opposite camp. Like all the soldiers, he had been forced to come to Beijing to massacre protesting students and citizens. Like us, he was too powerless to prevent the tragedy from happening. Out of conscience, he had probably refused to kill and chosen instead to be a deserter. If that was the case, he was a real hero.

But within the tragic events of the day, anger and irrationality got the better of me. I saw him as my enemy and struck him. This might be the biggest sin of my life. I cannot imagine the pain he suffered when he was dying and what was on his mind at that moment.

As I wrote in “The Unusual June”:

“Millions of heads / millions of steps / were involved in my life / millions of heads / millions of steps / were involved in my birth /millions of heads / like a grand explosion of planets /disappear suddenly, all at once /millions of steps / all disappear, little by little / Oh, my dearest”

“Every time / my poems cannot stop my tears / my agitated eyes and lacerated heart /all pain, not a disease / not even my compassion / I’m not an outsider.”

We have been living with this wound all these years. We should keep looking for the Tank Man, for Wang Weilin. And we should keep looking for the other tank man, who halted his advance. We should look for the loved ones of the young soldier who died in the violence in which I took part. I look forward to the day when I find his family and share with them my guilt: I too have been mourning him all these years.

Chimerica is an excellent play that has been performed in Britain and America over the past two years. More performances are planned, which will bring renewed attention to both tank men. Their stories have not yet ended, nor the history of which they are a part.

November 11, 2015


Yang JianliYang Jianli (杨建利) is the founder and president of Initiatives for China, a democracy advocacy organization in Washington, D.C.