Liu Xiaobo’s Fight for Freedom

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Law & Liberty on September 17, 2017.

It was the Czech writer Milan Kundera who said: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” His fellow writer Liu Xiaobo, who died this summer under police guard while serving an 11-year prison sentence, made a profoundly important and significant contribution to the struggle of memory against forgetting.

For four millennia, each new Chinese dynasty rewrote the history of the last. The ruler since 1949, the Chinese Communist Party, also believes it controls the truth. Liu Xiaobo’s empty chair at his Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo in 2010 told us all we needed to know of the authoritarian power that is exercised over history and remembrance by the China of our time. The poet, dissident, and Nobel laureate embodied what George Orwell called “the liberal habit of mind, which thinks of truth as something outside yourself, something to be discovered, and not as something you can make up as you go along.”

In August 1943, before it came to power, the Chinese Communist Party had already published an editorial in the Liberation Daily entitled, “Without the Communist Party There Would Be No China.” Later that same year, the CCP created a propaganda song using this title. Mao Zedong  later decided the song was to be called: “Without the Communist Party, There Would Be No New China.” But while, mercifully, Mao has been dead for over four decades, the party has in our generation tried to combine material progress with Mao’s revolutionary totalitarian control over history.

In 2006, a gigantic memorial to the song was unveiled in Beijing. The leadership now requires an oath of loyalty to the Communist Party from lawyers and judges, media workers and professors, schoolchildren and army generals alike.[1] Uyghur mosques are required to cover Islamic verses with large red banners that read “Love the Party, Love the Country.” But Liu Xiaobo steadfastly refused to participate in the CCP’s version of history and reality. He was among the most confident advocates of a more humane world in all of Chinese literature and social commentary, for lives of dignity and authenticity. Upon his death of cancer at the age of 61, government censors sprang into action to block the news of his passing, and also to block publication of the tributes paid to him by his countrymen.

We can learn from the man whose chair sat empty at Oslo. Americans need to know more about him.

He said to a friend in 2000: “The beauty of written language is that, in the dark, it shines a light on truth; and beauty is the focal point of truth.” He later said, regarding the explosion of the world wide web in China: “The Internet is like a magic engine. It has helped my writing to erupt like a geyser. Now I can even live on what I write.”

In his enthusiasm for the new medium of the Internet—he even called it “God’s gift to China”—Liu Xiaobo was truly prescient. For some nine years, between his release from his second prison term in 1999 and his detention in 2008, he was, by one calculation, able to publish more than a thousand articles promoting humanitarianism and democracy on Chinese-language websites based outside China. He was able to reach audiences in this way because he was no longer dependent on a job in the party-controlled universities, or on party-controlled journals to circulate his trenchant social criticism.

He developed an audience of millions, not just outside his country but within it. Along with that avenue for freedom of expression, though, comes a certain discipline: there has to be a demand side. What that means is, you can’t just spout abstractions. You have to speak directly to people—you have to know the concerns and worries of your audience. Even more fundamentally, you have to build and nurture a readership, to bring citizens along to a new way of thinking when all the power of the modern authoritarian state is geared toward molding the minds of the young, engineering every psychological and material incentive to herd people into one of two paths: harmless individuality or loyal conformity. Whatever genuinely independent individuality manages not to disappear into the maw of this well-organized system is subject to brutal repression.

Liu Xiaobo’s imprisonment in 2008, his third, coincides very nearly with the beginnings of the global authoritarian resurgence that reflects newfound confidence on the part of authoritarian governments to use the Internet for surveillance, and for the dissemination of propaganda. This new phase of the use of communications technology seeks not only to censor but also to monopolize the medium: Any instrument can and will become an instrument of propaganda, and oppression, or just “fake news.” Of China in the pre-Internet era, Liu said: “Unrelenting inculcation of Chinese Communist Party ideology has . . . produced generations of people whose memories are blank.” In today’s brave new world where every citizen has a 24-7 tracking device in his pocket, and facial-recognition software is slated for installation on every street corner in major Chinese cities, what chance does memory have?

Liu Xiaobo recognized that the direct communication from activists to followers is not worth much without what we call intermediating institutions. He was not only a poet, critic, and intellectual. He was not only a voice of conscience, and a man of exceptional moral courage. He created a true legacy of flesh-and-blood human beings, people inspired by him and shaped by the aspirations he articulated, but also, just as importantly, by the experience of working together to build ideas, build institutions, and work on practical problems.

In particular I note the significance of two institutions with which Liu worked in the mid-2000s until his arrest in 2008, and which the National Endowment for Democracy, for which I worked at the time, was privileged to support through its grants program.

When Liu became a magazine editor, in 2006, it was not a literary magazine, but rather Democratic China Magazine (Minzhu Zhongguo). This online publication featured the work of hundreds of authors, writing about all aspects of Chinese society and politics, encompassing cultural and political commentary. The mission of Democratic China has been to explore and foster freedom, democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and constitutionalism. These are not the stuff of literary imagination first and foremost, but of the practical problems of politics and governance.

Liu used this platform to cultivate the next generation of writers and readers. What he had already been doing as a teacher and leader of “salons,” he now did as a mentor for all kinds of writers, who were encouraged to come forward and develop their insights and critical observations. The publication gave them space in a Chinese-language world that is otherwise harshly censored.

At the helm of Democratic China, Liu was able to resolve the inevitable difficulties of working not just with one but with two co-editors, living on two continents and communicating closely despite a 12-hour time difference. He reinforced a strong ethical foundation for the publication’s internal guidelines. Editorial board members could not receive fees for the articles they wrote, for example. All this was against the culture: both of intellectuals, who can sometimes be self-absorbed and competitive, and of the CCP, which touted conformity and hierarchy. He did all this while coping with constant government harassment, and also with the habits of self-censorship endemic to authoritarian regimes.

Liu was also a founder of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, the first and only membership organization of writers and journalists in China dedicated to championing freedom of expression. Elected president of Independent Chinese PEN in 2003, he served two terms, for a total of four years. He declined to be a candidate for a third term, making way for new leadership, and ensuring there would be no conflict of interest with his role as an editor of Democratic China. Here too he fostered the next generation of Chinese intellectual talent, and here too he insisted that every board member faithfully observe the ethical standards of the institution.

In both endeavors, Liu fostered humanitarian assistance. Independent PEN has devoted much energy and precious financial resources to helping those in need, through “Freedom-to-Write Fellowships,” and legal aid and humanitarian assistance to the families of writers languishing in labor camps as prisoners of conscience. In both, he was an institution-builder, insisting on a division of responsibility and accountability for staff and volunteers roles, ground rules for proper board meetings, ground rules for elections and rotations in office, and consistent ethical guidelines to guard against self-dealing—in contrast to the ubiquitous culture of graft and corruption that dominates Chinese institutions, from schools to companies to the bureaucracies of the state.

As he carried out these duties, all the while writing so many articles of his own, Liu also received a constant stream of visitors who were victims of injustice. He spent countless hours, and often his own money, connecting them with lawyers, journalists, documentary filmmakers, and others who were willing to help.

So Liu Xiaobo was a thinker, and a writer, and an activist. He excelled at all; like no one else, he made them into an exceptional life of service, shaping what we might call a program for democracy.

In all of this, he recognized that not everyone can be a hero, or will want to be. Most people are not acute social critics, but they can take a look around themselves and perceive when something is wrong. Most people are not prolific writers, but they can insist on ethical rules in the institutions they serve. Most people may not become well-known, but they can still cultivate the next generation (in their own little garden). Most people live under myriad forms of pressure and stress, and don’t have extraordinary amounts of courage, but they can take time to pay respects to the dead and be personally generous to others in need.

Liu Xiaobo’s example teaches all of us—Chinese democrats but also those struggling against tyranny everywhere in the world—to think, speak, and write, even under censorship and deprivation, even when you can’t publish or have a tiny audience, even when you despair that nobody is listening. He teaches us that the act of remembering the dead, especially those who have lost their lives in service of the true, the good, and the just, is an act of resistance and an act of conscience.

In the example of his work as a writer, editor, and investigator and documentarian, Liu teaches us to regard no matter of social importance as beneath our notice or beyond our ability to recognize and act upon. He strongly believed that a true civic movement could be formed by Chinese people despite generations of authoritarian conditioning that actively fostered hatred, cynicism, and cruelty toward others for one’s own survival.

Liu Xiaobo never succumbed to discouragement but emphasized always that the struggle for democracy is a generational struggle. When his wife Liu Xia was allowed to visit him in prison, and he learned that he would be given the Nobel Peace, he told her he wished to dedicate the prize to those who lost their lives on June 4, 1989. He also asked that children participate in the ceremony. We learn from Liu Xiaobo to pay respects to those who have gone before us, and to nurture those who will come after us, in the struggle for freedom and democracy.

It may be that for a while, the Chinese party-state will be able to “disappear” the memory of Liu Xiaobo into the black hole of amnesia that he did so much to fight. But the tributes that Chinese writers have managed to disseminate, and the memorials that have been held in New York and in Taipei, London, Malmo, Oslo, and elsewhere, are at the very least a guarantee that the amnesia will not be complete. Orwell held out hope that “the liberal habit of mind” would have the strength to outlast the rule of the tyrants. Liu Xiaobo now belongs to history. His fight for the survival of conscience is ours to carry on.

[1] Since 2012, Chinese lawyers have been obliged to swear this oath: “I promise to faithfully fulfill the sacred mission of socialism with Chinese characteristics … loyalty to the motherland, its people, and uphold the leadership of the Communist Party of China.” Last year, President Xi Jinping visited the state-run media outlets and ordered their editors and reporters to show their fealty to the Chinese Communist Party. “All the work by the party’s media must reflect the party’s will, safeguard the party’s authority, and safeguard the party’s unity,” he said. “They must love the party, protect the party, and closely align themselves with the party leadership in thought, politics and action.”