Editor’s Note: Xiao Qiang 萧强 is an Adjunct Professor at the School of Information at University of California at Berkeley, and the Founder of China Digital Times, a bi-lingual China news website. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
On Thursday, if a foreign reporter in a metropolitan Chinese city or a busy small town held up a microphone to ask a pedestrian about the death of Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident who won the Nobel Peace Prize while imprisoned, I would not be shocked if the response was: “Who? I have never heard of him!”
But I am not concerned. Liu Xiaobo will be remembered by this hypothetical pedestrian’s children, grandchildren, and grandchildren’s grandchildren. They may not even know their own ancestors’ names, but they will surely know Liu Xiaobo’s.
Liu will be remembered as a Chinese intellectual who negotiated with the military commanders, avoiding further bloodshed on Tiananmen Square. In the early morning hours of June 4, 1989, he secured the safe passage of thousands of student protesters between tanks and encroaching soldiers. After that, he called himself a survivor and witness of the doomsday of Communism.
Liu will be remembered as one of the authors of Charter 08, a manifesto initially published on December 10, 2008, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopting the name and style from Charter 77, which was a petition drawn up by writers and intellectuals in then-Czechoslovakia demanding that their Communist government recognize basic human rights. Since Charter 08’s release, thousands of people inside and outside China have signed the document advocating governmental reforms including separation of powers, freedom of speech, and rural-urban equality. His effort brought him an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power.”
Liu will be remembered with an “empty chair” - a simple, blue upholstered seat in Oslo’s city hall at the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. The citation and medal placed on the chair read: “The campaign to establish universal human rights also in China is being waged by many Chinese, both in China itself and abroad. Through the severe punishment meted out to him, Liu has become the foremost symbol of this wide-ranging struggle for human rights in China.”
And he will be remembered as a poet, by another poet – his wife, Liu Xia. In future generations, every man and woman seeking true love will remember his poem to her: “I’m your lifelong prisoner, my love, I want to live in your dark insides, surviving on the dregs in your blood.”
He will be remembered as a patient dying of late-stage liver cancer. Liu’s final medical condition, after he was denied permission to leave the country for treatment, was broadcast by the Chinese state. But the media and internet of a country with 1.4 billion people remain silent. Chinese poet Meng Lang, living in Taiwan, wrote in a poem for Liu in his final days: “Broadcast the death of a nation, Broadcast the death of a country, Hallelujah, only he is coming back to life.”
Already, some – like Human Rights Watch – are remembering Liu together with Carl von Ossietzky, a pacifist and fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner who died in 1938 under police custody in Nazi Germany’s Berlin.
Someday, Liu’s name will grace a national monument of a democratic China, for transcending fear with love in advance of human dignity. One day, when nations become obsolete concepts and “national monuments” disappear from the earth, the name Liu Xiaobo, together with those of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela, will still be as bright as the brightest stars in the night sky, inspiring the ever-enduring enterprises of human freedom and dignity.
Meanwhile, the names of those who imprisoned him and hastened his death, together with the name of their brutal, and brief, authoritarian regime, will be a mere footnote under Liu Xiaobo’s page in the history books.