Liu Xiaobo's Lasting Legacy

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Liu Xiaobo, the literary critic, philosopher, and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, died today at age 61. His death is an inestimable loss, and the circumstances cruel. Liu was serving an 11-year sentence for subversion for his role in Charter 08, a democracy manifesto and other writings critical of Chinese Communist Party rule. In late June, diagnosed with liver cancer, he was transferred from jail to a hospital. The Party refused his request to leave China with his wife for treatment. He was the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in jail since the German pacifist Carl von Ossietsky in 1938.

Liu was an unusual combination of an intellectual and activist. In the spring of 1989, he flew home from New York to join the students during the democracy protest movement at Tiananmen Square. On the night of June 3, as troops moved in to clear the square he persuaded remaining protesters to leave and negotiated their safe passage. Although he spent 18 months in jail, he considered his fate mild. When many years later he was informed of the Nobel Prize he dedicated it to those killed in 1989. He was according to those who knew him, prickly, brilliant, funny, and self-deprecating.

Tiananmen propelled Liu toward political dissent. It was also a turning point for the Party. After squelching the protest movement, Chinese leaders grew even more uncompromising. They refused to go the way of the Soviet Communist Party. In 2005, wary of the spread of “color revolutions,” the Party resolved to prevent the emergence of a democracy leader on the order of Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, or Lech Walesa. In November 2008, a Politburo meeting decided Charter 08 was an attempt at a color revolution, and Liu’s fate was sealed. Just before the Charter was to be launched online, Liu, the most prominent of its signers, was detained.

At his trial in 2008, Liu expressed a stubborn optimism. “[T]here is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme.” When he gave these remarks, he already had been in jail for one year, awaiting trial. To his wife, the artist Liu Xia, he wrote: “Even if I were crushed into powder, I would use my ashes to embrace you.”

If the Party was determined to stop a challenge to its power, America has been willing to go along. Acceptance of Party’s rule, and deference to its abuses, has been the policy since Bill Clinton delinked human rights from trade and engineered permanent normal trade relations, with the support of the Republican Party and George W. Bush. Before that, George H. W. Bush returned to business as usual after Tiananmen, and of course Richard Nixon started it all by setting up China as a counterweight to the Soviet Union.

Oddly, despite the dramatic change in circumstances, the U.S. never adjusted its approach. Today, we are discovering that America’s posture of uncritical engagement has far-reaching consequences. China is not only crushing democracy at home but challenging the universal rights and liberal democratic norms and universal abroad. A response to this will not come from the White House. Just hours after Liu died, President Trump praised Xi Jinping as a “terrific guy” at a press conference in Paris. Liu cannot comment on Xi’s ascendancy, and the attendant U.S. retreat. But we still have his writings to guide us. “Tyranny is not terrifying,” he wrote in 1996, “ what is really scary is submission, silence, and even praise for tyranny.”

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