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The unanswered questions of Liu Xiaobo

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Protesters carrying candles take part in a march to mourn the death of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, in Hong Kong, China, 15 July 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Bobby Yip).

In Brief

The loss of Liu Xiaobo is a tragedy. The final decade of his life was spent in jail. The books he could have written, the contribution he could have made to Chinese and global society and the influence he could have had as a highly regarded public intellectual are now lost. The silencing of Liu has robbed Chinese society of an important, creative and forensically sharp voice when it most needs diversity of opinion.


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The body of work that Liu published in Chinese and English before his incarceration provided useful insight for understanding the complexities of China’s current position. More of this would have been very helpful — but it was not to be. That he died suffering from terminal cancer is just about the worst possible outcome for the Chinese government. Eight years into his 11-year sentence, the world saw heart-breaking photos of him and his wife while he undertook palliative treatment in hospital.

The Chinese state often talks about win-win outcomes. In the case of Liu, it has turned out to be lose-lose. No one comes out of this happily. For Liu, his family and friends, the situation is a terrible tragedy. For the Chinese government — which will be blamed for the entire situation — it is a great stain on its reputation.

It is imperative to remember the crime that Liu was said to have committed. He never physically harmed any one, nor stole property, nor was accused of blackmail or bribery. His crime was ‘subversion of the state’, the evidence for which was articles written on websites, most of which were blocked in China and had no more than a few hundred readers.

When reflecting on the meaning of Liu’s case, why was it that every step of the way, right to the end, the Chinese government did not compromise, despite paying a huge price in terms of its reputation and image? Since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Chinese state has poured huge resources into promoting itself abroad. Under Xi Jinping, it has made a concerted effort to communicate the ways in which its role in the world is now beneficial and positive. Yet this one case gave its most implacable enemies endless ammunition.

Take, for instance, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu. This was the first ever Nobel Peace Prize given to a resident Chinese citizen — one who was also in detention. For a government that had been pursuing Nobel recognition for decades, this was a huge slap in the face. But its subsequent management of the issue worsened an already bad situation.

Liu became for Chinese officials a symbol of how they would not bow to Western pressure and a test case for how emboldened they felt in the face of criticism about their rights record. Hence, the refusal to allow him to attend the Oslo ceremony — and the empty seat that was used to represent him — was a powerful and emotive symbol.

On top of this, there was the treatment of his wife Liu Xia in the years since. Her incarceration in her own home despite never having been accused of a single crime summed up the zero-sum approach of the Chinese security apparatus. Images of her weeping in the street, reports of her deep depression and sporadic stories about her pitiful condition provided a parallel and contradictory narrative to the bolder, positive outward message China was trying to spread.

One of the most worrying aspects of the Liu case is how it points not to the Chinese government’s strength and confidence, but to its weakness.

As uncertainty spreads everywhere, the world is increasingly inclined to want and to believe in a China that is stable, predictable and confident. The fact that the Chinese state has been willing to expend such disproportionate political capital on this case looks like tangible evidence of a mighty party state rattled by the actions of one man.

Western leaders have to contend every hour of every day with fierce and sometimes savage criticism without recourse to jailing their opponents, and yet China made such an effort to deal with a single individual. The question this inevitably provokes is a simple one: why were they so frightened?

The answer lies in trenchant comments that appeared in Liu’s essays. For him, what broadly typified the Western posture towards politics and culture was a sceptical, questioning attitude. He contrasted this with a much more managed, coerced contemporary Chinese practice.

Liu’s work deserves renewed attention, as does his case. His treatment after his leading role in the demand for more human rights generates endless, worrying questions about the control of the ruling Chinese Communist Party and their mandate. These are questions to which they have so far responded to by simply closing down debate, silencing Liu and people like him. One wonders how long this approach can be sustained.

Liu’s contribution is to leave unanswered questions lingering for years to come. These questions can perhaps be evaded — but not ultimately avoided. His final disappearance will not stop these questions, but will rather only make them more penetrating and difficult to answer.

In his life, Liu worried the Chinese state. In his demise, Liu’s questions should worry us all.

Kerry Brown is a Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute, King’s College.

A version of this article was originally published here at Asian Currents.

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