CHINESE writer Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

Less than a year before that, on December 25, 2009, he was found guilty in a Beijing court of “incitement to subvert state power”. Perhaps Christmas Day was chosen for the sentencing in an attempt to keep it quiet. A year before Liu had been the main sponsor of Charter 08, a manifesto for human rights, democracy and rule of law in China that circulated online and was signed by thousands, before a crackdown by the government and Liu’s arrest stopped it in its tracks.

Liu was in jail when he heard about the Nobel. At the award ceremony in Oslo he was represented by an empty chair, a custom from International PEN, the world association of writers, for recognising an imprisoned writer. Liu’s wife Liu Xia was put under house arrest to stop her from going to Norway, as were other family and friends in China. Writers from the new, independent Chinese branch of PEN, of which Liu had been elected president in 2005, were also arrested. The Chinese government denounced the award of the prize to Liu, the first Nobel to a Chinese citizen, and did what it could to block information about it in China. There has been little news of Liu Xiaobo since. He has disappeared into China’s black hole, to serve a sentence that runs until 2020, when he will be 65, if he makes it. He has serious health problems and limited access to reading and writing material. That’s one way to kill a writer.

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It is scarcely credible that the government of a country of 1.4 billion people, one of the largest economies, an emergent great power that is flexing its muscle in all directions, can be so scared of one individual, a writer whose crime is to write about what is happening in China and to disseminate his ideas online. What has he done that is so bad? Only by reading his work can we find out. Liu’s colleagues outside China, Perry Link and Tienchi Martin-Liao, and Liu Xia, are to be thanked for a timely compilation in English that introduces the man and his thoughts from his early years as a literary critic at a Beijing university to his status as the new century’s most famous Chinese intellectual, even while he is silenced and incarcerated in his country. It’s gutsy for Harvard University Press to publish it, too. Harvard has interests in China, as do many institutions these days. Just to mention Liu Xiaobo’s name is taboo for Chinese academics, and even academics outside China can be wary of discussing his work in case they offend officialdom.

No Enemies, No Hatred lets us judge for ourselves. It covers a range of recent hot topics in China: the role of sex and political humour in contemporary culture, the Confucius revival, the Beijing Olympics, Hong Kong, Tibet, Obama, Jesus Christ. There’s commentary on abuses that attracted grassroots protest: farmers evicted from their land, children forced into slave labour, violent crimes unpunished and covered up. It includes essays cited by the prosecution in the case against Liu and gives us the full text of Charter 08.

Typical of Liu’s historical approach, the charter’s foreword encapsulates China’s 100 years of modernisation to buttress arguments for continued reform and recommendations couched in terms of principles enunciated in the Chinese constitution, including “to respect and protect human rights”. The target is the Communist Party’s monopoly of power. Having “seized control of all organs of the state and all political, economic and social resources”, the party has become unaccountable and the people are no longer sovereign. The party’s priority is to maintain power by serving the self-interest of its members. As the rights of other citizens are stripped away, the charter warns, the risk of serious social conflict increases. Charter 08 advocates an alternative way forward. The party can relinquish the privilege of dictatorship and return power to the people through freedom of assembly, expression and religion, protection of private property, social security, a Truth in Reconciliation process and other guarantees of human and political rights. These are noble, practical and self-evident aspirations to which even the party pays some lip service. Is Liu really a criminal for giving them voice?

His recent essays have mostly been published online on Chinese-language sites based outside China and away from China’s great firewall of internet obstruction. According to Perry Link in Liu Xiaobo’s Empty Chair (New York Review of Books, 2011), “In 2010 China spent 514 billion yuan on ‘stability maintenance’ [weiwen, shorthand for stopping protest, critique and dissent], more than it spent on health, education or social welfare programs, and second only to the 532 billion yuan it spent on the military. This year ‘stability maintenance’ will exceed military spending — although that, too, is rising significantly”.

China is virtually at war with itself.

Liu’s essays are also often about the promise of the internet for China’s 440 million netizens. He calls it God’s gift to China, though he is not blind to its downside: “It has helped my writing to erupt like a geyser.” The internet lets ordinary people mobilise quickly around particular abuses of power that arouse their anger, placing the government on the back foot in its response, even when instructing its official media on the line to take. Liu argues that until now core democratic ideals, such as freedom of speech, have been advanced in the abstract from on high by educated elites. China’s online activism has convinced a much broader sector of the population of the relevance of such concepts in practice. As people push from below, change will come.

In an essay called To Change a Regime by Changing a Society, Liu looks patiently to “the non-violent, rights-defence movement . . . to expand civil society and thereby provide people with space within which they can live in dignity”. So is that a crime in China?

Liu’s emphasis is consistently on people speaking for themselves, telling the truth and being heard. He hails the courage of the 1979 Democracy Wall poets and artists for claiming the right to speak independently as part of their self-liberation. He laments veteran author Ba Jin’s ultimate failure to “tell the truth”. He attacks the persistence of Maoist language in today’s virulent Chinese nationalism, diagnosing a toxic psychology of “self-abasement and self-aggrandisement” that produces insecurity plus bravado. He is hard on Chinese intellectuals, and hard on himself, as he tries to purge ingrained ways of thinking in favour of what he calls “universal human values”, reaching beyond “class struggle” to recognition of the “integrity, dignity and freedom of every person”. Ironically, Liu was convicted for incitement to subvert state power, a crime that Charter 08 wants abolished because “through viewing words as crimes” it discourages people from speaking out. As Liu said in self-defence: “There has been nothing remotely criminal in anything that I have done.”

So why is China so intent on making Liu disappear? In 2005 China’s President Hu Jintao issued a classified report warning against allowing an opposition leader to emerge in China, a Nelson Mandela or an Aung San Suu Kyi with the moral authority to lead a movement. “Blast the head off the bird that sticks its neck out,” the report ordered. With Charter 08 Liu became that bird. Ironically, the regime’s paranoid strategy produced precisely the effect it wanted to avoid. When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a few months later, at least one senior Chinese, making the parallel with Mandela, quipped of Liu: “He’ll end up as president.”

The Chinese government is intent on heading off another Tiananmen, which continues to haunt it. Liu told his wife on one of her rarely permitted prison visits that the Nobel was “for the aggrieved ghosts of the June Fourth [1989] massacre in Beijing”.

Liu had started a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square in the latter days of the protest movement in an attempt to hold open a possibility of dialogue before the martial law regime turned violent against the remaining demonstrators. The June 2 statement he wrote with three friends contains the seeds of later writings and actions: “It is imperative that the government recognise and correct its mistakes right now, before it is too late.” Tragically it was already too late.

Liu and others took refuge in my flat in Beijing after the massacre. On June 5 he helped draft a message that was read at Parliament House, Canberra, in due course, at a solemn ceremony for Tiananmen in which prime minister Bob Hawke promised Australia as a safe haven for pro-democracy Chinese students.

As a result 40,000 mainland Chinese became Australian citizens in a cohort that has grown with family migration, changed Australia’s demographic profile and connected us advantageously to China’s development — an unforeseen long-term flow-on from Liu’s powerful rhetoric. Liu made the decision not to seek refuge in the Australian embassy on June 6 and was arrested as he rode his bicycle through the near empty Beijing streets that night. He understood that he could remain effective as a social critic only if he remained in China, wielding his skills of language and intellect in the context where they meant most.

Drawing on history — 1949, 1979, 1989 and beyond — Liu insists that China’s long transformation will not be over until what Democracy Wall era dissident Wei Jingsheng called the Fifth Modernisation, democracy, is achieved. Is he right? He is a uniquely well-informed, insightful, exhilarating and eloquent writer. He shows how the best Chinese writing may not be in the literary fiction for which official China ponderously claims prestige but, in the tradition of Lu Xun (1881-1936), in the biting essay, the sharp moral sketch, the impromptu personal outpouring.

Liu’s style is rhetorical, emotional, accusatory, colloquial and relentlessly argumentative. The reader wants to share the hope that energises his work. But not everyone is convinced. His friend Hu Ping, New York-based editor of Beijing Spring, counters that for China’s rulers “the current strategy works. The formula ‘money + violence’ works, and we stay on top. We know what the world means by human rights and democracy, but why should we do that? Aren’t we getting stronger and richer all the time?”

Columbia University scholar Yang Guobin’s study of online activism in China is more ambivalent about the internet’s capacity to deliver political change. Thinking people in China are worried about the trust deficit all around them. Against such realism, Liu’s idealism can look like the grand delusion of yet another Chinese intellectual uncomfortably turned activist.

Li Er, a Chinese writer of a younger, more cynical generation, satirises such types: “The piercing feeling I have about intellectuals is their powerlessness — it haunts them every second. They are so powerless that they don’t even have the strength to sigh.” (Translated by Jane Weizhen Pan, The Magician of 1919, Make-Do Publishing, Hong Kong, 2011.)

Liu’s essays are interleaved with poems to his wife that are personal, playful, introspective. In his final stirring statement from court Liu Xiaobo pays a public tribute to the remarkable Liu Xia. He notes that he has had only two occasions to state his views publicly since 1989, both times in court. “I have no enemies, no hatred,” he declares, hoping to be “the last victim of China’s endless literary inquisition”. To his beloved he says: “I have been held in tangible prisons, while you have waited for me within the intangible prison of the heart. Your love has been like sunlight that leaps over high walls . . . it has infused with meaning every minute of my stays in prison . . . my love is rock-solid and sharp. It can pierce any barrier.” When Liv Ullman read out those words at the Nobel ceremony in Oslo, the audience was moved. They express a great human story.

I regard Liu Xiaobo as a friend. The last time I saw him was at dinner in Beijing in 2005 when we met as presidents of our respective PEN centres. He was under neighbourhood arrest and I was under surveillance. I don’t usually review books by friends, but I make an exception here because he needs to be heard. When I mentioned him the other day, the response was: “Oh, he’s been let out, hasn’t he?” No, that’s Ai Weiwei, the artist who performs his needling critique of the Chinese government in ways that brilliantly capture attention. But he does not articulate an alternative in the way that Liu does. That’s why Liu has been silenced, and why anyone who puts out opinions about China, every policy-maker and risk analyst, should read this book.