'Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth." So said Liu Xiaobo in his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. It would be his final public statement. When the words were read on his behalf at the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm, with two empty chairs for Liu and his wife Liu Xia, he was in prison, serving an 11-year sentence that turned out to be for life.
Liu – writer, teacher, poet, intellectual, activist – was, by the time of his death last week at the age of 61, probably China’s best-known dissident. Having come of age in the dark years of the Cultural Revolution, he sought refuge in books, in ideas, in argument. Moved by the peaceful idealism of the students who marched for democracy in Tiananmen Square in 1989, he joined them, earning himself two years in jail and leaving him haunted for the rest of his life by the memory of the courageous “lost souls” who did not make it out alive. “This is for the aggrieved ghosts,” he reportedly told his wife when she brought him news of the Nobel win.
His gift was an ability to think, and to speak, for himself. But it also set him squarely against a Communist Party that would brook no challenge. Liu's involvement in drafting the Charter 08 manifesto – named in homage to Václav Havel and Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 – was deemed the final straw. The charter, a call for political change and opening-up, was a relatively moderate document – one people could get behind. For the authorities, that was precisely the problem. It led to his arrest, and on Christmas Day 2009 he was imprisoned for "inciting subversion of state power." Liu Xia was in attendance when Liu's ashes were scattered at sea after a ceremony apparently orchestrated by the authorities at the weekend, but she remains under house arrest, denied permission to leave the country.
With Liu’s death, a light goes out. But in the hearts of human rights defenders and those standing against oppression across the world, his spirit will live on.