Liu Xiaobo profile: Freedom of expression a fundamental right

‘To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, suppress truth’

 Late Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo  and his wife Liu Xia photographed in Beijing on October 22nd, 2002. File photograph: Liu family handout/AFP Photo/Getty Images

Late Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia photographed in Beijing on October 22nd, 2002. File photograph: Liu family handout/AFP Photo/Getty Images

 

Liu Xiaobo - who has died of cancer aged 61 - used his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in 2010 to restate a core belief he held for his whole life - that freedom of expression was a fundamental human right.

“Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth,” ran the speech, “I Have No Enemies: My Final Statement”, read out by the actor Liv Ullmann.

Already in jail at the time of the Nobel ceremony, in his stead in Stockholm was a large photograph behind the dais and two empty chairs, one each for Liu and his wife Liu Xia.

Enormous snub

China, which insisted Liu had been punished in accordance with the rule of law, was furious, freezing diplomatic relations with Norway until recently over what it saw as an enormous snub and an impingement on its sovereignty.

Meeting Liu at media or literary gatherings, the conversation would be shoptalk about politics and society. He was a notably driven person who was also funny, fond of discussing football and, of course, books.

China’s foremost dissenting voice would say all he wanted to do was to require the Communist Party to comply with the constitution - specifically Article 35 which says citizens enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.

Born in the smokestack city of Changchun in the northeastern province of Jilin province in 1955, Liu came of age during the Cultural Revolution and, like many intellectuals in that time of ideological frenzy, he was sent into the countryside to learn the ways of the peasant class.

After the Cultural Revolution was over, and universities tentatively began to reopen, Liu studied literature and philosophy before becoming a critic and teacher at Beijing Normal University, taking his PhD in 1988.

His first major publication was “Critique on Choices: Dialogues with Li Zehou” in 1987. It achieved popularity by challenging the ideas of the cultural philosopher and historian Li Zehou.

Iconoclastic approach

Liu’s iconoclastic approach chimed with thinking circulating among young intellectuals at the time. A countercultural storm was gathering in the universities, and Liu was already emerging as a voice asking questions of the older intellectuals and Communist Party leaders.

In 1989, Liu took part in the student protests on Tiananmen Square, which earned him two years in jail. He then served another three years in a labour camp for criticising China’s one-party system.

The Charter 08 manifesto advocating democratic change in China was inspired by the Czech Charter 77 movement, and published on the 60th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

‘Inciting subversion of state power’

This led to his arrest in December of that year, and on Christmas Day 2009 he was imprisoned for 11 years for “inciting subversion of state power”.

Liu Xia, who had her own empty chair in Stockholm, married Liu while he was in custody in 1996. She too has suffered terribly, having been placed under house arrest when China marked Liu’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The words he wrote to Liu Xia really stood out, speaking of how his love for her was full of remorse and regret.

“But my love is solid and sharp, capable of piercing through any obstacle. Even if I were crushed into powder, I would still use my ashes to embrace you. Even if I am crushed into powder, I will embrace you with the ashes.”