Liu Xiaobo’s Plea for the Human Spirit

“I have no enemies, and no hatred.” Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, spoke those words on Dec. 23, 2009, just before he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for “incitement of subversion of state power.” It was his fourth jail term since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. Liu is the only Chinese citizen to win any Nobel while living in China and, as Perry Link notes in introducing a new collection of Liu’s writings, one of only five Nobel Peace Prize winners unable to appear in Oslo to receive the gold medal: “In 1935, Carl von Ossietzky was held in a Nazi prison; in 1975, Andrei Sakharov was not allowed to leave the Soviet Union; in 1983, Lech Walesa feared he would be barred from re-entering Poland if he went to Oslo; and in 1991, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest in Burma.” INO ENEMIES, NO HATRED: Selected Essays and Poems (Belknap/Harvard University, $29.95), the well- translated collection edited by Link, Tienchi Martin-Liao and Liu Xia — Liu’s wife — Liu demonstrates a considerable amount of anger while retaining his Gandhian nonviolent spirit. Taken together, his essays offer the best analysis I have read of what’s wrong in the People’s Republic of China.

Liu was the prime mover (although not the originator) of Charter 08, the petition signed by several thousand Chinese who demanded an accountable government and freedoms of speech, assembly, press and religion. The petition was the main evidence the Chinese government used against Liu when it sent him to prison in 2009, but his accusers might have reached further still, through his hundreds of articles and poems, and his 17 books. Even his 1988 Ph.D. dissertation, “Aesthetics and Human Freedom,” was “a plea for liberation of the human spirit,” as Link explains in his introduction.
Liu has always been most animated by democracy. This concern underlies his essays on Taiwan, Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union, the failures and lies of the Mao era, the “miracle” of the Deng Xiaoping reforms after Mao’s death in 1976 and, perhaps most emotively, Tibet. Even while Beijing condemned the Dalai Lama as “a wolf in monk’s clothing,” Liu breathtakingly suggested in 2008 that China could solve its ethnic unrest by inviting “the Dalai Lama back to China to serve as our nation’s president. . . . Such a move would make best use of the Dalai Lama’s stature in Tibet and around the world.”
An accomplished poet, Liu pays close attention to the power of language. Noting that the party charged him with “incitement of subversion of state power,” he said this was an excellent example “of treating words as crimes, which itself is an extension into the present day of China’s antique practice called ‘literary inquisition’ ” — a practice exemplified by the 18th-century emperor Qianlong’s purge of subversive books.
More fervently still — Liu never misses an opportunity to skewer Communist Party hypocrisy — he recalls that in the years before its victory in 1949, the party’s newspapers “were constantly criticizing the Chiang Kai-shek regime for its repression of free speech and often issued loud appeals on behalf of persecuted voices of conscience.” He contrasts this with the execution during the Cultural Revolution of Zhang Zhixin, who was condemned to death for criticizing the Mao cult; before Zhang was shot, her throat was cut so she could not cry out a final denunciation.
I recall Liu’s arrival in Tiananmen Square in May 1989. An angular, awkward, bespectacled man bending over and waving his arms, he exhorted the demonstrators to add democracy to their demands for a free press and an end to corruption. On June 2, he and three friends announced the start of a hunger strike. “We seek not death,” they read out to a crowd that had fallen silent, “but to live true lives.They emphasized that “we should recognize that all Chinese citizens are strangers to the matter of running a country on democratic principles. . . . We must not let hatred or violence poison our thinking. . . . We are citizens before we are anything else.” The next night the tanks and soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army crashed into the square and began the slaughter of many hundreds. Liu and a few others negotiated with the soldiers to allow the surviving students to leave the square in safety.
Some of Liu’s most eloquent observations came afterward. He recalls “the cruelty of the executioners and, even more clearly, the brightness of humanity that shone in the midst of great terror.”..

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