Liu Xiaobo is China’s sacrificial lamb
Nobel Peace Prize laureate has paid a high price for speaking his mind; perhaps in the future, speaking out will no longer need to be an act of moral and mortal bravery
State repression may be rational, a means to a higher goal. Or it may be vindictive. In the case of the authorities’ jailing of Liu Xiaobo, it’s clearly the latter. The dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate has been granted medical parole after being diagnosed with liver cancer.
It’s been said that his 11-year jail term imposed in late 2009 for co-authoring the dissident Charter 08 statement was Beijing’s way of “killing the chicken to warn the monkey”. But his more serious offence seems to have been his winning the Nobel Peace Prize after his sentencing. Beijing had always wanted a Chinese citizen to win a Nobel for national pride, but not one it had sent to jail. In 2012, it had its wish when novelist Mo Yan, a senior figure in the official literary establishment, won the prize for literature.
Any efforts to treat Liu more leniently would have been for naught, because the peace prize represented a profound affront to the central government. In response, it severed diplomatic ties with Norway. Relations were only fully restored last December.
Liu, of course, deserved much better. For all his lifelong criticism and dissent against the state, he did it one big favour. As a key player in the 1989 Tiananmen protests, he criticised student leaders such as Chai Ling for calling for bloodshed.
When the military crackdown started, he and Taiwan-born dissident musician Hou Dejian negotiated with soldiers and convinced reluctant student protesters to leave the square voluntarily, thereby enabling the authorities to claim subsequently that no one was killed at the symbolic heart of the nation. Liu is usually linked to pro-democracy figures like Fang Lizhi and Wei Jinsheng. But his literary output has been prodigious, for someone who has only known two types of Chinese institutions – school and prison. His Western-inspired humanism and liberalism are close to those of Hu Shi, the philosopher, linguist and diplomat. His cultural iconoclasm was inspired by Lu Xun, China’s greatest modern writer.
These men represent a path to national rejuvenation through humanist moral values. Most Chinese today, led by the central government, prefer a more materialistic path through the pursuit of power and wealth. Perhaps in the future, we will learn that the two are not mutually exclusive.
Perhaps in the future, speaking out will no longer need to be an act of moral and mortal bravery.