‘I have no enemies’: Why Liu Xiaobo’s passing is a sad story for China and its people
Audrey Jiajia Li says Liu Xiaobo left his mark on history through his deep conviction in non-violence despite the provocations, and the circumstances of his passing are a public relations setback for China
The sad end to Liu Xiaobo’s ( 劉曉波 ) ordeal battling liver cancer is as much a tragedy for his family and friends, as for fellow Chinese inspired by his vision. His life has ended, but his legacy shall live on and be cherished by those who shared his vision for democracy, liberty, the rule of law and an end to censorship.
A gentle yet courageous intellectual, Liu left his mark in history through his roles in several major events, and through his deep conviction in the power of non-violence in bringing about social change.
As the 1989 pro-democracy protests came to an end on the morning of June 4 in Beijing, Liu could have fled but chose to stay in Tiananmen Square and was among the few well-known intellectuals who urged the student protesters to retreat and negotiated with the military to give safe passage. This saved the lives of hundreds, though he received a two-year prison sentence soon afterwards.
From Mahatma Gandhi to Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King to Aung San Suu Kyi, the concept of non-violence has resonated with many. However, it has proven difficult for the idea to take root in Chinese society. In 1898, when the “Hundred-Day Reform” movement of the Qing dynasty failed, reformer Tan Sitong’s last sigh before his execution came with the words: “transition of all nations begins with bloodshed”. In recent times, the communist doctrine “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” was sanctioned and worshipped. Even in today’s China, a majority believes in the rule of the jungle: fists talk and conciliation equals weakness.
But we now live in the 21st century. Civilisation has supposed to have evolved to a level where people are capable of reaching consensus by communicating, negotiating and compromising. In this sense, non-violence was a fresh notion with Liu who, as a pioneer, promoted this with great perseverance.
“Do not hate” is what Liu preached throughout his years as an activist, in a culture where hatred towards the “enemy” was rarely questioned. Centuries of past humiliation have helped fuel a sense of victimisation along with xenophobic emotions, even as China rises as an economic and geopolitical power. Fifteen years ago, Liu foresaw this worrisome trend and wrote: when narrow-minded nationalism outweighs the liberalism of universal values, and when such sentiments are shared by the majority of the public opinion, patriotism could be used to justify the brutality of authoritarianism, military muscle-flexing and even cruel atrocities.
“Hatred can rot away a person’s intelligence and conscience”, he told the court during the trial for his role in drafting Charter 08, a moderate manifesto calling for democracy. On eventually receiving an 11-year sentence, Liu famously said in his closing statement: “I have no enemies ... [an] enemy mentality poisons the spirit of a nation, incites cruel mortal struggles, destroys a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinders a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy”. In 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”. His “I have no enemies” speech was read at the awards ceremony.
Liu remained unbowed, never giving up what he believed in. He was imprisoned and lost his job at Beijing Normal University where he was a young professor in the aftermath of the 1989 events. He was deprived of the right to teach, publish or speak to a large audience ever since.
He was subjected to residential surveillance and sent for re-education through labour in the 1990s. Despite all that, during his short-lived period of freedom, Liu co-wrote Charter 08, his blueprint for the overhaul of the country’s political system. And he was jailed again. It was reported that the authorities had sought admission of guilt in exchange for his freedom but Liu refused, steadfast in his beliefs.
Besides everything else that Liu has left to the world, his life story of three decades of suffering is also something that will not be easily forgotten.
Liu will go down in history not only as the third person to have won the Nobel Peace Prize while in detention, after German pacifist Carl Ossietzky and Myanmese democracy icon Suu Kyi, but also as the first to have died in custody since the Nazi era. The public relations setback this brings for the nation is not easily repairable, no matter how many billboard ads are bought at New York City’s Times Square.
From the ambitious “Belt and Road Initiative” to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, from hosting summits ranging from the G20 to BRICS, China has lately focused on building an international image of a responsible super power.
Unfortunately, the tragic lives of Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia reflect the unpleasant features beneath the beautiful surface.
The passing of Liu Xiaobo also means the country has lost an opportunity for dialogue that could lead to peaceful political modernisation and heal bitter divisions. An influential rational voice with sharp insights should have been treasured by the world’s second-largest economy aspiring to transmit its soft power to the world. Regrettably, the hardship the Liu couple endured, and the absence of response to their final wish to receive medical treatment overseas, do not help to counter the stereotypes that parts of the world hold about China.
A social media post put it this way: Liu Xiaobo was a gift given to our nation from heaven, but we didn’t know how to cherish him, and now heaven has taken him back. Regardless what one thinks about his ideology, his passing makes for a truly sad story, for him and for the nation.
Audrey Jiajia Li is a columnist and China observer