A Life Like a Symphonic Poem: Farewell to Liu Xiaobo

by    /  August 31, 2017  / No comments

Liu Xiaobo with his wife, Liu Xia. Image via nobelprize.org.

Deeply saddened, we bid farewell to our dear friend Liu Xiaobo, the former and honorary president of the Independent Chinese PEN. Xiaobo, a pacifist, was an advocate for human rights, democracy and freedom of expression in China. After 8 years of imprisonment, his health was ruined and his severe illness was covered up by the authorities. He was moved from prison to a hospital for medical parole, because a Nobel Prize laureate dying in prison would have harmed the image of the Communist Party. Xiaobo’s last wish – to leave the country together with his wife – was not granted and will never come true. In the last two weeks of life, he was still surrounded by security police, even the doctors might have been in the services of the Party. We are not sure whether Xiaobo ever had a chance to speak unmonitored to his beloved wife, Liu Xia.

Xiaobo has always been a forerunner in his time. In the 1980s, as a young man in his early 30s, his critical articles on traditional Chinese culture and thought made an immense mark on intellectual circles. Consequently, he was able to convince the members of the examining board of his dissertation to unanimously grant him his doctoral degree. He became a popular teacher at Beijing Normal University. His role during the June Fourth Democratic Movement might have been controversial, but there is no doubt that due to his negotiations between the students and the soldiers larger casualties were prevented.

As a founding member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, Xiaobo wanted to set up an institution to protect his writing colleagues in China. Many years later, in 2009, when he was giving his statement of self-defense in court, he said, “I am looking forward to the day when our country will be a place of free expression; a country in which the words of each and every citizen are treated with equal respect. He knew too well that hundreds and thousands of other people before him had been punished for their words. He pled, “I hope that I will be the last victim in China’s long history of treating words as crimes.” This noble wish was a gentle whisper in the darkness of the wasteland which is totalitarianism. For freedom of expression, Xiaobo had to pay with his personal freedom, his health, and finally his life.

I hope that I will be the last victim in China’s long history of treating words as crimes.
-Liu Xiaobo, 2009

During the last nine years of his life, Xiaobo was surrounded by prison guards, by other prisoners, by security police, by personnel of the Justice Department, etc. No friends or family members were admitted to see him. His wife was allowed to visit once in a month. They were not able to touch each other, a thick glass wall standing between them. The only way they could talk there was over a phone on the wall, while every word was recorded by the prison authorities. The prison doctors were the ones to determine whether he was ill or not. In this instance, they reached their conclusion very late: at a point when his cancer of the liver had already formed metastases. They granted him medical treatment in a hospital. Two weeks later he died. Was it a stage-managed intrigue or a cold-blooded act of murder?

The international community, world political leaders, as well as 154 Nobel Prize laureates pled for Liu Xiaobo’s release and to grant him his wish to go abroad with his wife and her brother. Not only did this appeal fall on deaf ears with the Xi regime, the authorities went on to cut off all the connections between Liu’s family and the outside world. No one was able to communicate with the patient and his wife. Once again, both were left in total isolation. Why does the regime have such paralyzing fear of a dying man? As a prisoner, Liu received no information from the outside world.; For nine years, he was allowed only to read the party newspaper and books which the prison authorities selected for him. He had no access to the internet, he was not allowed to be given paper and pen for writing – how could he be dangerous? And yet, he must have posed an imminent threat to the government for it to decide to eliminate him. Liu Xiaobo has become a hero, a legend, an icon, thanks to the Communist regime. Physically he is gone, yet his spirit, his longing for freedom, democracy, and human dignity will be everlasting. , It will linger over China, just as Marx and Engels proclaimed in 1848 that the spectre of communism was haunting Europe— Xiaobo’s spectre will be a constant nightmare for the Chinese totalitarian regime.

“Single truths, drop by drop, can form a flood that washes away tyranny,” Xiaobo once said in his article “Using truth to undermine a system built on lies,” (2003). He has now paid with his life by speaking the truth to the powerful. He also saw himself and his friend Liao Yiwu as fools. Yet, fools they are not. Xiaobo is the wisest and most consequent person I have ever known. Tyranny continues ruling in Xiaobo’s home country, a tyranny that does not allow his beloved wife to build a tomb for him. The regime’s fear is so overwhelming that it doesn’t even care to cover up its own lies. In the Chinese official language, Xiaobo is still a “criminal,” a bad guy, who wants to “incite subversion of the state’s power.” But, let us ignore the ugliness of the Communist Party’s mouthpiece. Let us cherish, what Xiaobo was so convinced of— “Language gets its beauty from making truth glow in the darkness, beauty is concentrated truth.”

Single truths, drop by drop, can form a flood that washes away tyranny.
-Liu Xiaobo, 2003

Farewell, Xiaobo, your life was as versatile and magnificent as a symphonic poem. For now, you have no tomb in China, but people who love you will set up an altar for you in their hearts.

About the Author

Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

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Fearless, Ink.