Jonathan Mirsky

The lesson of Liu Xiaobo

China's Nobel Peace Prize winner took on his government – why can’t we?

Liu Xiaobo, China’s only Nobel Peace Prize winner, has died, eight years into his 11-year prison term. He was the greatest champion of democracy in a country where there are many others also detained by the Communist Party, which insists those convicted are not dissidents but criminals.

Tried in 2009 for subversion, Liu had just been moved under police guard into a hospital and diagnosed with inoperable liver cancer. While his original sentence aroused an international outcry, followed by the award of the prize in Oslo — where his chair was empty — the news of his fatal illness provoked demands that he be allowed to go abroad for possible treatment. Liu himself said he would prefer to die in the West —as long as his wife, the indomitable Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest in Beijing for almost as long as her husband’s prison sentence, was allowed to accompany him, together with her brother, another political prisoner.

None of us who were in China during the ‘Beijing Spring’ of 1989, when demonstrations that began in April in Tiananmen Square spread to several hundred cities, can forget the dramatic appearance of Liu Xiaobo. Hearing of the events while a visiting scholar at Columbia University, he hurried back to be part of the greatest spontaneous uprising in China since the Communist victory in 1949. Until his arrival, the calls — extraordinary enough — had been for an end to official corruption and the reinstatement of party general secretary Hu Yaobang, who died soon after his sacking for remarks about Chinese behaviour in Tibet. What Liu did, with his legendary wild gesticulations, was to remind the protestors that what China needed most was democracy. By this he meant precisely what readers of The Spectator mean by the word.

In China, above all, it meant the end of Party rule.

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