Chinese Shed Tears for Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo

JULY 17, 2017

Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese Nobel Peace laureate who died on July 13, has had some critics among exiled radical Chinese dissidents. But the Taiwan Center in New York was overflowing with his “comrades” and admirers at a memorial held for him on July 15. When the music of “Jasmine Flower,” a folk song Liu liked, sounded in the hall, many attendees started sobbing for the fall of a giant who had once held the torch of human rights and democracy in China.

The memorial, with Chen Pokong, a pro-democracy dissident, as the emcee, attracted close to 500 attendees. The Tiananmen Mothers (an organization of the Chinese whose children were killed in the Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 1989) sent condolences via an audio clip. Tibetan monks chanted. And friends recited poems to mourn the deceased.

Li Xueguo, who knew Liu since childhood, said he and Liu both grew up in Changchun City, Jilin province. He was a classmate of Liu’s younger brother. Li said the Nobel laureate was not considered a good student when he was a kid. “He didn’t like to follow the rules, and he was always absent from the courses he didn’t like,” Li said. It surprised Li when his willful old friend became one of the “Four Gentlemen of Tiananmen Square” during the June 4th Movement. (The Four Gentlemen are four intellectuals who were considered to be a beacon for the student protesters at Tiananmen Square.)

Li, who was a magazine reporter before the Movement, was punished for his participation. He had to move to Canton and then Shenzhen to make a living before he emigrated to the U.S. where he became a doctor. “There is only one day between my birthday and Liu Xiaobo’s birthday. But as people, what we achieved is so different,” said Li. “I am still just a doctor trying to make ends meet. He had already become a monument. My heart is being gnawed by frustration and helplessness. A doctor may be able to treat some physical illness, but he has no way to treat the ignorance of the 1.3 billion Chinese people.”

Jin Zhong, editor of Open magazine in Hong Kong, said Liu had worked closely with the publishing houses in Hong Kong. “In 1988, I interviewed him for a story I was writing which was later published with the headline ‘Liu Xiaobo: A Black Horse in Literature.’ I asked him at the end of the interview how to bring freedom and democracy to China. He said: ‘To have the country be colonized for 300 years’,” said Jin. “He saw the differences the hundred years of British colonization brought to Hong Kong. He analogized his criticism of China to a rebellious son who tried to crack open the tomb of his ancestors.”

Jin said because of such opinions, some people called Liu a traitor to his country. Liu’s essay “Mao Zedong: the Monster” was also called a shameless attack against the Communist Party and the people. But Jin said during the June 4th Movement, Liu had evolved from an angry young man into a leader of the democracy movement. When he drafted “Charter 08” (the pro-democracy manifesto that caused Liu’s imprisonment), he was humble and open-minded. He added the articles that call for freedom of the press and on organizing political parties at the suggestion of friends.

“We were looking forward to his release and to have him as our leader again,” Jin said. Now the wish has been destroyed. Jin ended his eulogy with a quote from Alexander Dubček, the reformist former first secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia who was expelled after the Prague Spring was thwarted by the Russian invasion in 1968 – “They may crush the flowers, but they can’t stop the Spring.”

Wang Juntao, a student leader during the June 4th Movement, said Liu originally was only a literary writer with a big ego who was critical of all other writers and thinkers. And he was eager to achieve mundane happiness such as by having a family like all ordinary people. Then he gave up personal interests to coordinate among groups holding different opinions, endured a lot of criticism and attacks, and eventually produced “Charter 08.” This effort won him more and more respect. “Liu Xiaobo has gone. But [his soul] is not free. In China, one still has to take great risk to spread his thoughts. This is the suffering of our country,” Wang said.

Wang Dan, who was also a student leader at Tiananmen Square, called for all overseas Chinese who love freedom to write to elected officials in the U.S. and make eight demands: the renaming of the street in front of the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. as “Liu Xiaobo Way”; the construction of a tomb for Liu in New York which may contain Liu’s clothes; the rescue of Liu’s wife Liu Xia; the prohibition from entering the U.S. of the Chinese officials involved in Liu and his wife’s persecution; the encouragement of local municipalities to name July 13 “Liu Xiaobo Day”; the formation of a task force to investigate what happened to Liu; the signing of “Charter 08”; and a call for the Nobel Committee to give the peace prize again to people who are still fighting for freedom in China.

Hu Ping, honorary editor of the Beijing Spring magazine, said Liu’s death should alert people that Western countries are now bending to China’s economic power to such a degree that they remain silent even after he was tortured and died. “This is a reverse of Western democracy, and a reverse of the era,” said Hu. He cited the threats of economic retaliation Norway received from the Chinese government after Liu won a Nobel Prize as an example. “This is not only a matter of human rights in China,” said Hu. “It has affected the development of democracy in the world.”

Andrew Nathan, professor of political science at Columbia University, said in a written statement that China has been flexing its power abroad, and trying to influence American universities and censor movie scripts with its economic leverage. And this has threatened freedom of speech in the West. The way the Chinese government treated Liu is also a sign of how insecure the Communist Party feels. It suppresses dissidents with all means and doesn’t want to leave any chance for the Chinese people to resist. He said only when Liu’s works are preserved will justice not be forgotten.

Joe Wei, a veteran journalist, thanked the Taiwan Center for helping organize the memorial on such short notice. “The stance on the Taiwan independence issue aside, the Taiwan Center is a force to protect democracy and freedom,” said Wei. He said all the 19 changes “Charter 08” has called for have been realized in Taiwan. So it is not unfit for Chinese people as the Chinese government claims. “Why can Chinese enjoy the freedom in Taiwan but they have to be put in jail (in China) for their opinions?”

Penpa Tsering, the Dalai Lama envoy in North America, Norbu Tsering, president of Tibetan Community of New York & New Jersey, Nicole Morgret from the Uyghur Human Rights Project, Xu Youyu, an original co-sponsor of “Charter 08,” Cheng Xiaonong, editor of “Modern China Studies,” Xiang Xiaoji, former leader of the June 4th Movement, Lv Jinghua, a labor activist, Patsy Fang Chen, president of the Taiwan Center, and Cary S. Hung, a Taiwanese pro-democracy activist, also attended the memorial.