“I HAVE no enemies and no hatred,” Liu Xiaobo told a court in Beijing during his trial for subversion in 2009. Hatred, he said, “can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience”. He had every reason to despise the government; he was about to go to jail for simply petitioning for democracy in China and asking people to sign up. But the forgiveness he offered was never reciprocated by the Communist Party. Officials did not allow him to pick up the Nobel peace prize he won a year later, as the “foremost symbol”—in the Nobel committee’s words—of the struggle for human rights in China.
He not only made an enemy of the government, but also riled fellow intellectuals and activists with his acerbic, rough, often coarse, observations of their weaknesses. As a writer and lecturer, deeply read in both Chinese and Western philosophy, from the 1980s he tirelessly attacked China’s boring cultural consensus. He saw himself as a Nietzschean lone wolf, a nihilist, even a renegade, a stammering loner who would stand out from the crowd and shout; but there ought to be room for him, he thought, and people like him.
He scorned those who watched from the sidelines as pro-democracy unrest erupted across China in 1989, and could not wait to get back from America, where he had a fellowship at Columbia, to join in. It was his moral duty to do so, as it was to chastise student protesters in Tiananmen Square for their lack of democracy. A day before the troops moved in, he and three other intellectuals began a hunger strike in the square as an act of individual repentance, lamenting the student movement’s lack of efficiency. When young people got into politics, he had grumbled earlier, it was too often superficial, just a crowd reaction. True liberation for the Chinese would come only when people learned to live and think for themselves: to be personally brave and free. The hunger strike was a bid not for death, but for “true life”.
He stayed in the square to the end, helping to persuade the occupying students to accept a deal to withdraw. That probably saved many lives. A few months later, in prison, he again angered fellow activists by saying, on state television, that he had seen no one killed at Tiananmen. He was scorned for seeming to lend credence to the party’s propaganda. Yet he was just telling it as it was, with his usual blistering honesty. Most of the bloodshed had indeed occurred outside the square itself.
He spent 19 months in prison for his role in the Tiananmen protests. Eventually he was convicted of “counter-revolutionary incitement and propaganda”, but was released for encouraging the students to withdraw. He was quick to resume his provocations, his habit of “crashing into brick walls”. His “Monologues of a Doomsday Survivor” (1992) attacked students who had fled to America. Those damned people who ran away overseas, he co-wrote, had no right to comment on his behaviour.
The lonely forerunner
Pessimistic by nature, gloomy about mankind’s future in general, he might have been referring to any sort of doomsday. But the one he meant was communism’s. It was easy then to imagine a world free of it. China’s party was still clinging to power, but many others had collapsed; China’s would follow, he believed, in just a few years. As a survivor of the bloody crackdown in Beijing, he had witnessed the party’s last gasp.
It was not to be. The “lonely forerunner” had to go on needling the party, struggling against the odds, petitioning for democracy and an official reassessment of Tiananmen. In 1996 he was sentenced to three years in a labour camp, emerging unbowed to go on writing about politics at his usual terrific rate. In 2008, after an explosion of unrest in Tibet (where he demanded “genuine autonomy”), he and many other intellectuals urged the government to talk to the Dalai Lama.
Later that year, to mark the 60th anniversary of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he wrote the appeal that was to land him in prison for the last time. It was inspired by Charter 77, an appeal issued by dissidents in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia in 1977. His version was called Charter 08. It demanded an end to one-party rule and a new government that embraced democracy and human rights. Hundreds signed, but the timing was bad. With the Beijing Olympics over, China no longer needed to impress visiting foreigners. Mr Liu was arrested in December 2008, two days before the charter’s release.
China scoffed at his Nobel peace prize (he was the first Chinese person still living in the country to receive a Nobel award of any kind). And it brushed off appeals for clemency from Western governments. The global financial crisis proved that the West was in decline; China’s day had come. When Xi Jinping took over as China’s leader in 2012 he cracked down even harder on dissent, and kept Mr Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest. The party made a token gesture of sympathy at the end, allowing her to visit her husband as he faded from liver cancer, but refused to let him get treatment abroad.
His vow at his trial, to “dispel hatred with love”, cut no ice with the party. As his death approached, it mobilised an army of censors to scrub the internet of any expression of sympathy for him.
This article appeared in the Obituary section of the print edition under the headline “Doomsday’s survivor”