The Legacy of Liu Xiaobo

NB: This fearless intellectual, who defied the mighty Chinese Communist Party even as he fought for the freedom of the human mind, died in hospital on July 13, 2017, denied the right even to proper treatment. Beneath the image is an extract from Simon Ley’s review of Liu Xiaobo’s book, No Enemies, No Hatred. It is an essay in Ley’s book of essays, The Hall of Uselessness (2014).

THE ECONOMIC rise of China now dominates the entire landscape of international affairs. In the eyes of political analysts and statesmen, China is seen as potentially “the world’s largest economic power by 2019.” Experts from financial institutions suggest an even earlier date for such a prognosis: “China,” one has said, “will become the largest economy in the world by 2016.” This fast
transformation is rightly called “the Chinese miracle.” The general consensus, in China as well as abroad, is that the twenty-first century will be “China’s century.” International statesmen fly to Peking, while businessmen from all parts of the developed world are rushing to Shanghai and other provincial metropolises in the hope of securing deals. Europe is begging China to come to the rescue of its ailing currency.

All thinking people wish now to obtain at least some basic understanding of the deeper dynamics that underlie this sudden and stupendous metamorphosis: What are its true nature and significance? To what extent is it viable and real? Where is it heading? Bookshops are now submerged by a tidal wave of new publications attempting to provide information about China, and yet there is (it seems to me) one new book whose reading should be of urgent and essential importance, both for the specialist and for the general reader alike—the new collection of essays by Liu Xiaobo, judiciously selected, translated, and presented by very competent scholars, whose work greatly benefited from their personal acquaintance with the author.

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 brought the name of Liu Xiaobo to the attention of the entire world. Yet well before that, he had already achieved considerable fame within China, as a fearless and clearsighted public intellectual and the author of some seventeen books, including collections of poetry and literary criticism as well as political essays. The Communist authorities
unwittingly vouched for the uncompromising accuracy of his comments. They kept arresting him for his views—four times since the Tiananmen massacre in June 1989. Now he is again in jail, since December 2008; though in poor health, he is subjected to an especially severe regime. As Pascal said, “Trust witnesses willing to sacrifice their lives,” and this particular witness happens to be
exceptionally well qualified in other ways as well, both by the depth of his information and experience, and by his qualities of intelligence and moral fortitude.

Born in 1955 in northeastern China, Liu truly belongs to the generation of “Mao’s children,” which, by an interesting paradox, eventually produced the boldest dissenters and most articulate activists in favour of democracy….


In Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo’s defendant’s speech made on 23 December 2009, prior to him being sentenced to eleven years’ imprisonment, he stated: “I have no enemies”. These words inspired the Nobel Peace Center in creating a portrait of the imprisoned peace activist. The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Exhibition told the story of Liu Xiaobo’s brave and sustained struggle for fundamental human rights in China: from participation in the Tiananmen protests of 1989 and up until Charter 08. The exhibition also provided insight into today’s China. An extensive photographic series, made in China for the Nobel Peace Center, highlighted the rule of law, the increased expectations and future prospects of the Republic and its people.

In 2009 Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to eleven years’ imprisonment and two years’ loss of political rights for “incitement to subvert state power”. The severe punishment he has received has contributed in making Liu the prime symbol of the struggle for human rights in China…

The Legacy of Liu Xiaobo

He was 61. He should have lived much longer. But he got sick. While in prison. And didn’t receive proper medical treatment before it was too late. He will live much longer. Simply because his words will remain, his actions will speak for themselves, and his self-sacrifice will be remembered. The heroes who sacrifice themselves for their principles are remembered more respectfully and more powerfully in history, than those who oppose them out of fear or pettiness.

Liu Xiaobo was a hero. A literary critic and a poet. An academic who fought for democracy and human rights and paid a huge price for his activism. He was jailed for the first time after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. In total, he did four prison terms. The last one was for participating in drafting the Charter 08 manifesto; calling for political reforms in China.

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2010 “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”. But the chair stood empty in Oslo during the Award Ceremony. The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize was placed on an empty chair in Oslo’s City Hall. Here on display at the Nobel Peace Center.


On July 13th, 2017, the laureate died of liver cancer after being refused to be sent abroad for treatment. He is the second Nobel Peace laureate to have been denied the right to collect his prize, and thereafter died in custody. The first one was Carl von Ossietzky, who warned about Germany’s remilitarisation in the 1930s. Both of them were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for fighting for freedom of expression.

Will the fight for democracy die with him? No, it will not. On the contrary, it will grow in strength. Liu Xiaobo’s voice reminded the world that human rights violations remain a serious issue in China, despite its growing economic power, and that China’s development won’t be sustainable unless real political reforms take place. Those striking and protesting by the thousands, on a daily basis, bear witness to the same. His voice can still be heard, and his struggle was not in vain.


Democracy and human rights are currently under a lot of pressure worldwide. Simultaneously, there is a lot of talk about what is in our best interest, about prioritising our economic safety and trade with China.

But the fight for human rights, freedom of expression and democracy cannot be treated as a hobby, or as a case just for fine conferences, sunny days and fine conversations with cocktail glasses.

The real struggle takes place every single day. In prisons and in organisations, on the street, at the university or at the workplace. It is our duty and our responsibility to support them. This is in our own interest, but also our last defence. Human rights were written in the Charter of the United Nations after World War II, as a mutual defence mechanism. If we begin making exceptions for free speech when it best suits us, it won’t be long before very little of it is left.

Human rights are fundamental, and therefore they are ratified in national laws, the UN Charter and international conventions. It was never written that we should respect them at leisure. Quite the contrary: we have to protect them when it’s the least convenient. If we respect the freedom of expression of others, they will defend ours. If we don’t respect the rights of others, who will defend ours? It may seem difficult to some but, for Liu Xiaobo, it was that simple.

Originally published in Norwegian in Aftenposten, July 18, 2017.

PEN International’s Tribute to Liu Xiaobo, December 10, 2020

Ten years ago, on 8 October 2010, Liu Xiaobo became the first Chinese citizen to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. For a regime that was still keen to burnish its international reputation following its country’s hosting of the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government should have celebrated Liu Xiaobo’s success and made every effort to ensure that Liu could be presented with the award in person at the ceremony that was held in Oslo on 10 December 2010.

Instead, Liu Xiaobo languished in prison, and his award placed on an empty chair that symbolised his absence. In 2008, Liu was detained and later sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment for having dared to peacefully call for a future where his fellow citizens could enjoy the basic freedoms that he was ultimately denied.

Liu’s appalling treatment by his own government ended in his premature death under police guard while he was in hospital on medical parole in 2017, making him the first Nobel Peace Prize Laureate to have died in custody since Carl von Ossietzky died in a hospital bed while under gestapo surveillance in 1938. It is a parallel that should cause grave concern to any government that claims to represent the interests of its citizenry.

Liu Xiaobo lived as a poet, literary critic, scholar, and human rights activist. Liu was born into a family of intellectuals, and in 1977 he was among the first cohort of Chinese students to sit college entrance exams in over a decade following the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. He later worked as an academic and writer, quickly gaining a reputation for his caustic literary critiques of fellow Chinese intellectuals.

Liu emerged as a key member of the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy movement and he was responsible for saving thousands of lives by convincing demonstrators to leave Tiananmen Square before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) oversaw the brutal massacre of many of those remaining.

Despite the ever-present risk of persecution by the Chinese government, Liu remained defiant in the face of overwhelming state power. Arrested and detained for his role in the protest movement just days after the Tiananmen Square massacre, on his release he continued to use his writing to peacefully call for human rights and democratic reform. When government authorities attempted to silence him by banning the publication of his writing, he continued his work, publishing his writing in Hong Kong, Taiwan and other countries.

Even when imprisoned, the authorities could not suppress Liu Xiaobo’s spirit. In 1996, while Liu was serving a three-year sentence in a forced labour camp, he married Liu Xia, a celebrated poet and artist who now lives safely outside China after having endured years of house-arrest by the Chinese government.

In 2008, the year of the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Liu Xiaobo helped to draft Charter 08, a manifesto that called for the democratic reform of China’s political system and the promotion of basic human rights for its citizens. It was inspired by Charter 77, a document drafted by dissident intellectuals, including Václav Havel, that called for an end to the pro-Soviet leadership in his country, Czechoslovakia, and restoration of democratic rights. Just two days before Charter 08 was due to be published on 10 December 2008 to mark Human Rights Day, Liu Xiaobo was detained by the Chinese government and denied freedom for the remainder of his life.

Despite Liu Xiaobo’s untimely death, the Chinese government has failed in its efforts to silence him and the values he embodied. Today, Liu’s ideas continue to live through his writing, inspiring countless others in China and around the world to imagine for a future free from oppression.

Liu Xiaobo was an active member of PEN, an international community of writers dedicated to the protection of writers and the promotion of free expression. He was a founding member and former president of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre; whose membership includes writers within China and among the diaspora who continue to campaign tirelessly for the freedoms that Liu Xiaobo died for. Over a dozen of its members are currently detained in China, with many more continuing to face harassment and other forms of persecution inside China and beyond its borders.

To mark the tenth anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”, PEN International is holding a campaign to highlight Liu Xiaobo’s selfless courage, while also shining a light on four writers currently being persecuted by the Chinese government.

These writers include the lifelong pro-democracy activist Qin Yongmin, who is currently serving a 13 year prison sentence, and who will have spent 36 years in prison by the time of his scheduled release; Kunchok Tsephel, a Tibetan writer and co-founder of the first website dedicated to the promotion of Tibetan literature in China, who was imprisoned as part of a sweeping crackdown on Tibetan intellectuals that took place in 2009; Swedish writer and publisher Gui Minhai who was abducted by Chinese government agents while he was in Thailand and was then sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment on spurious intelligence charges; and Yang Hengjun, an Australian writer and political commentator, who was detained by security services while visiting China and now faces a potential death penalty on espionage charges. When considered together, these emblematic cases illustrate the extent that the Chinese government’s assault on free expression has resulted in the persecution of writers across China.

The extent to which the Chinese government has self-servingly prioritised control of public discourse over its citizens’ right to peaceful expression has created a climate of repression that impacts every aspect of society across China. The resulting human cost is perhaps most starkly illustrated by the Chinese government’s treatment of Dr Li Wenliang, who was one of the first to sound the alarm about the dangers posed by a novel coronavirus outbreak that has since become a global pandemic. Instead of heeding his warning, government authorities initially sought to silence him, forcing him to sign a letter that accused him of “making false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order”. On 7 February 2020, Dr Li Wenliang died from the virus.

The importance of freedom of expression in China is best expressed in Liu Xiaobo’s own words: “Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.”

On the ten-year anniversary of Liu Xiaobo’s awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize, PEN International calls on the government of China to protect the right to freedom of expression for all of its citizens, to end the persecution of writers, and to immediately and unconditionally release all those who remain imprisoned for their peaceful expression.