Nobel Peace Prize: the life and work of Liu Xiaobo
The arc of Liu Xiaobo’s life, from his youth as a firebrand literature professor to the years he has spent in prison, was set by the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, to whose victims he dedicated his Nobel prize.
Born in 1955 to intellectual parents in Changchun, the capital of the northern province of Jilin, Liu spent his teenage years in Inner Mongolia.
His father had been sent there, as part of Chairman Mao’s “Down to the Countryside” campaign, to correct his bourgeois tendencies and learn from the farmers and villagers. Liu spent his late teens and early 20s working as an unskilled labourer.
After Mao’s death, in 1976, Liu returned to Jilin and enrolled at university to study Chinese literature. He went on to teach at Beijing Normal University in 1984, completing his PhD four years later.
As a poet and writer, Liu met his wife, Liu Xia, also a poet. They married in 1996. However, he was married once before and has a son, Liu Tao.
“Neither his son or his first wife has appeared in public for many years,” said Liao Tienchi, a fellow writer.
At the beginning of his academic career, Liu caused a sensation with his withering assessments of Chinese writers and intellectuals, whose work he decried as mediocre. He said there was “nothing good” to say about mainland Chinese authors not “because they were not allowed to write, but because they cannot write”.
“He could be overbearing, and at times unbearable. But his critical lance was accompanied by genuine courage and political conviction,” wrote Jianying Zha, one of his friends and a fellow writer, in the New Yorker magazine.
In the febrile atmosphere of the late 1980s, as China’s leaders genuinely debated how far to open up the country, Liu appears to have been carried away, at times, with his desire to provoke and outrage.
Some of his more mischievous statements have come back to haunt him, however. In a 1988 interview with a Hong Kong magazine, he said: “After a hundred years of colonialism, Hong Kong became what we see today. China is so big, of course, that it would take three hundred years of colonialism to make it like Hong Kong today.” Even today, the tongue-in-cheek quote is still being used against him by the Chinese government to show he is a “tool” of Western governments bent on destroying China. “Patriotic youths still frequently use these words to paint me with treason,” he said in 2006.
Liu spent 1988 abroad as a visiting fellow at a number of foreign universities, including Columbia university in New York. But when students began massing in Tiananmen Square the following year, he quickly booked a plane ticket back to China.
“I was in New York at the time. This kind of news was on television and in the papers every day,” Liu said, in the documentary Gate of Heavenly Peace.
“The images affected me deeply. I thought, what’s the use of getting all worked up about this if you are so far away? I had to go back.” During the protests, Liu said that he felt torn. “I was so often divided. In our hunger strike declaration, I wrote about getting rid of hatred in politics, and so on. But when I faced that cheering crowd and felt that we might actually defeat martial law, the voice of reason left me.” “Facing the thousands of people who cheered me on, I was completely carried away. Now here I was, speaking at Tiananmen Square, I felt that my words could sway the fate of the nation,” he added.
As the movement lurched towards disaster, Liu tried to reason with the students to tone down their protests and return to their classes. When the army arrived, Liu negotiated with them to allow protesters to leave the square peacefully. In the aftermath, he was arrested and imprisoned until January 1991.
“From the moment I walked out of the Square, my heart has been heavy, after all that bloodshed on June 4th. I’ve never gotten over this,” he said, afterwards.
Liu may be the only Tiananmen protest leader to have published a book analysing the movement’s, and his own, moral failings, suggesting that China’s intellectuals had been blinded by self-righteousness and a grand sense of history-in-the-making.
In reality, he wrote that “the people recognised that in the Deng Xiaoping era (in contrast to the Mao Zedong era of class struggle), every effort was being made to develop the economy and raise the standard of living. This resulted in widespread and deep popular support and a solid, practical legitimacy.” Indeed, he argued the real failure of the 1989 movement was not only in the bloodshed and deaths, but also that it caused the Chinese government to tighten its grip on the nation and delay further reform. “It interrupted the process by which the ruling Party was gradually democratising and reforming itself,” he wrote. “The relaxed atmosphere of early 1989 was gone, replaced by an atmosphere of antagonism, tension, and terror.” After his release in 1991, Liu did not flinch from speaking out against the government and was jailed again in 1995 for three months and then in 1996 for three years.
By the time he came to co-author Charter 08, a petition for political reform in China that has now been signed by around 10,000 Chinese around the world, he had tempered his unsparing criticism with praise for the results of China’s reforms.
In an article published in February, he wrote that political reform “should be gradual, peaceful, orderly and controllable,” that “the order of a bad government is better than the chaos of anarchy.” Mo Shaoping, whose legal firm represented Liu, pointed out that Charter ’08 takes care not to stray further than the ideals of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which China is a signatory, and the rules within China’s own constitution.
However, spooked by Mr Liu’s past, his role in organising 300 academics to sign the petition, and perhaps by the funding of his magazine by the US government’s National Endowment for Democracy, the Chinese authorities reacted furiously.
Liu was tried by the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court in December 2009 and pleaded not guilty to the charge of “inciting subversion of state power”. The trial lasted fewer than three hours and his defence was not permitted to present any evidence. Two days later, on Christmas Day, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison. “I have no enemy and no hatred” Liu said.
An appeal was rejected.
Since then, he has been transferred to Jinzhou prison in his home province and now reportedly has access to books. On the day he was awarded the Nobel prize, there were reports that he had been given a special dinner by his guards.
His wife, who has been under house arrest without any communications since the award was made in October, said at an awards ceremony in 2009 that she does not view her husband as a political figure.
“In my eyes, he has always been and will always be an awkward and diligent poet. Even in prison, he has continued to write his poems. When the warden took away his paper and pen, he simply pulled his verse out of thin air.
“I feel that Xiaobo is using his intensity and passion as a poet to push the democracy movement forward in China. He shouts passionately as a poet: ‘No, no, no’ to the dictators.
“In private, he whispers gently to the dead souls of June 4, who, to this day, have not received justice, as well as to me and to all his dear friends: ‘Yes, yes.'”