July 17, 2017 12:32 am JST
Scott Savitt

How Liu Xiaobo paid 'the price of freedom'

Confidante reflects on Nobel laureate's passion to awaken China's intellectuals

Liu Xiaobo, 2nd from right, in New York in February 1989 with poet Bei Ling, right, and other friends. (Courtesy of Bei Ling).

I first met Liu Xiaobo in Beijing in 1987. I was 23, working as a translator at the Beijing Foreign Languages Press and writing freelance articles for Hong Kong-based Asiaweek magazine. Liu, almost a decade my senior, had just begun a PhD program in comparative literature at Beijing Normal University.

The future Nobel Peace Prize laureate was in the process of taking the literary worlds of Beijing, and of China, by storm. He had just published his groundbreaking first book, "Critique of Choices: Dialogue with Li Zehou."

Liu's simple, eloquent argument was that China's intellectuals had for centuries compromised so much to curry political favor with the authorities of the day that they had lost their independence. The book included the scandalous statement, "China would benefit from 300 years of colonization by the West." This was not welcomed by establishment intellectuals or Beijing's communist rulers.

Liu did not mean his statement literally. Rather, he meant that Chinese intellectuals needed to recover from the damage inflicted by centuries of authoritarian rule, straighten their backs and reclaim their intellectual independence and integrity. But his critics seized on the remark as evidence of his "reactionary" nature.

Liu did not shrink from these attacks. Instead he fought back in print, publishing the follow-up book, "Aesthetics and Human Freedom," and then five more in quick succession.

He wasn't a typical effete, Confucian scholar. He was a guy's guy. He drank, chain-smoked, and told bawdy political jokes. He was a character straight out of the 1919 May Fourth New Culture Movement. But he gored too many political oxen with his iconoclasm and earned establishment intellectuals' strong enmity.

With fellow activist-writers Duo Duo, Bei Ling, Mang Ke and others, he formed a literary salon that I reported on for Asiaweek. They gathered weekly at Beijing Foreign Studies University, then retired to neighborhood restaurants to drink lukewarm Yanjing beer, smoke and debate current political events, the course of economic reforms, traditional philosophy and history until the wee hours.

This was my graduate school. I had been living in Beijing for only a few years, so there was much I didn't understand. But because I was a foreigner, there was no such thing as a dumb question, and Liu treated me like a little brother.

He was a real Renaissance man. He read voraciously, from the Chinese classics to Schopenhauer, and would quote texts from memory as we bicycled through Beijing's back alleys, passionately discussing the fate of China.

His critics did not appreciate how Liu wielded ironic humor to play down how passionately he cared about his country. "I'll never let fear of criticism or punishment stifle my speaking out, and I'll struggle for the right of others to free expression, even if their views don't agree with mine," he said one evening. "That's the price of freedom." If only he knew how high a cost he would pay for his ideals.

Out and back

With his literary reputation soaring, in 1988 Liu accepted an invitation to teach at Columbia University. Reunited there with fellow Beijing political activist Hu Ping, poets Jiang He and Bei Ling, and artists Ai Weiwei and Yan Li, the group continued their Beijing salon in New York City, debating how best to continue their work when they returned home.

When student protests broke out in Beijing in 1989, Liu watched television day and night. He saw millions take to the streets to demonstrate for a better future. The students were so sincere, their idealism so moving. He felt he had to go back to Beijing to be with them.

Liu purchased a one-way ticket, paying cash so he couldn't change his mind. "I'm frightened, but can't sit in New York while my compatriots need me," he said. "Haven't I been preparing for this moment all my life?"

Liu didn't know if he would be arrested upon arrival in Beijing, but the authorities had bigger concerns. He made it to Tiananmen Square and spent weeks living in a tent and standing shoulder to shoulder with his former students, emerging as the chief spokesperson for the protesters in the final days before June 4.

He stood his ground the night of the massacre, ultimately negotiating with martial law troops for the safe passage out of Tiananmen Square of hundreds of those remaining, including me. For this action, Liu came to be known as one of the "Four Noblemen of Tiananmen." If not for his intervention, hundreds more young lives would have been tragically lost.

After the crackdown, Liu was arrested. He had no illusions about how a scholar would be treated in prison. "Willingness to endure punishment and even death is the price that must be paid for liberty," he said just before turning himself in. I wouldn't see my friend again for two years.

He was sent to Qincheng Prison, China's Bastille, on the charge of "instigating counterrevolutionary rebellion." After his release in 1991, he was again arrested in 1995, this time spending four years in a labor camp for calling on the government to overturn its verdict on Tiananmen and acknowledge its tragic mistake in violently suppressing the peaceful, patriotic student movement.

Reflections

The last time I saw Liu was Christmas 1999. We sat on the balcony of a friend's apartment, sipping beer and reminiscing about the old carefree days of the 1980s. "I wonder if we'll ever see the kind of freedom and open debate that we experienced then," he sighed. We raised our glasses and vowed, "Let's hope so!"

In a letter to his friend Liao Yiwu in 2000, he wrote: "Compared to others under the communist black curtain, we can't call ourselves real men.... In order for everyone to have the right to be selfish, there has to be a righteous giant who will sacrifice selflessly.... In history, nothing is fated. The appearance of a martyr will completely change a nation's soul and raise the spiritual quality of the people."

In 2002, he reflected on the radical, Mao Zedong-style politics he embraced earlier in his career: "I realized that my entire youth and early writings were nurtured in hatred, violence, arrogance, lies, cynicism, and sarcasm. I was raised on the 'wolf's milk' of the revolution, and Mao-style thinking and Cultural Revolution-style language was ingrained in me. I'd become my own jail. It may take me a lifetime to get rid of the poison."

In 2008, Liu initiated the seminal Charter 08 political freedom and human rights manifesto and signed it with more than 300 fellow Chinese citizens. The Charter was drafted to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Two days before its official release, Liu was arrested and charged with "suspicion of inciting subversion of state power."

"I Have No Enemies" was the statement he prepared to read at his trial, but wasn't allowed to. The essay was later read at the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony which Liu was not able to attend due to his imprisonment.

"I have no enemies and no hatred. None of the police who have monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentenced me, are my enemies. While I'm unable to accept your surveillance, arrest, prosecution or sentencing, I respect your professions and personalities.... I do not feel guilty for following my constitutional right to freedom of expression, for fulfilling my social responsibility as a Chinese citizen. Even if accused of it, I would have no complaints."

On Christmas Day 2009, Liu was sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment and two years' deprivation of political rights.

"China's political reform should be gradual, peaceful, orderly and controllable and should be interactive, from above to below and from below to above.... The order of a bad government is better than the chaos of anarchy. So I oppose systems of government that are dictatorships or monopolies. This is not 'inciting subversion of state power'. Opposition is not equivalent to subversion," Liu wrote in his rejected appeal.

He was incarcerated in Liaoning Province. Last month, he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and granted medical parole. He died in the prison hospital on July 13 at the age of 61. In the 28 years since the Tiananmen massacre, he had spent more than half in prison.

Farewell old friend.

Scott Savitt is the author of "Crashing the Party: An American Reporter in China" and was previously a correspondent in Beijing for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.

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