It takes a special kind of artist to get into as much trouble with the powers that be as Liu Xiaobo did.
Liu was a Chinese poet and writer who died July 13, 2017, after spending the last 30 years of his life in and out of jail as a political prisoner. He advocated for democratic reforms in a country that has been ruled by a dictator -- in one form or another -- for centuries.
In this post, we honor Liu Xiaobo as a representative of ideas and ideals that have resonated with millions of people all over the world for centuries, even in China where the invasive, authoritarian government of Chinese President Xi Jinping has censored all Internet searches of Liu's name and expunged tributes to his life from social media.
Xi wouldn't even Liu's body to be buried on Chinese soil.
Born in the northeastern city of Changchun, Liu grew up in the era of Mao's Cultural Revolution when schools were closed and urban families broken apart and sent to the countryside for "re-education." Despite his lack of early schooling, Liu went on to study Chinese literature at Jilin and earned a Master's Degree from Beijing Normal Universities. Along the way, he married for the first time and had a son in 1985.
From the start, Liu was unwilling to go with the tides. He stood up for freedom of expression, becoming a staunch advocate for freedom of expression, what has come to be known in China as "western values."
In 1987, his published his first book, Criticism of the Choice: Dialogues with Li Zehou. It challenged the Chinese philosophical tradition known as Confucianism and would become a non-fiction best-seller.
But trouble really for started for Liu in 1989, when China was convulsed by protests led by young people that culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989. He was in New York City at the time, a visiting scholar at Columbia University. He might have remained there, watching the tragedy unfold from the sidelines as many of us did. But Liu hurried back to Beijing to stand among the student protesters. He joined their hunger strike. And when the military crackdown came, he negotiated with commanders to allow the thousands of students who remained in the square to leave with no further bloodshed. If not for Liu's efforts, many more young people would have died that infamous bloody June.
Following the Communist Party’s deadly crackdown, Liu was detained and jailed. Because of his leadership role in the protest, he was fired from his job as a teacher, and his books are banned.
Yet, when freed in 1991, he refused to be silenced. Using his pen, he resumed his open and public demands for greater freedoms in China.
In 1997, Liu was sentenced to three years behind bars for a letter criticizing Chinese Communist party rule. He was banished to a labor camp, and while there he married his second wife, fellow poet Liu Xia. Their wedding banquet was held in the prison cafeteria.
The rest of Liu's days were spent in a cat and mouse game with the Chinese leadership. He worked and traveled overseas for a time; and he helped to establish the Independent Chinese PEN Center, a “non-political, non-profit organization of writers that fights for the protection of freedom of expression and publication,” for which he served as president from 2003 to 2007.
Then, in 2008, Liu Xiaobo co-authored a political manifesto, called Charter 08. The document appealed for a fundamental political transformation in China, including a new constitution, separation of powers, and the guarantee of human rights, such as freedom of expression and greater human rights. Though hundreds signed the Charter, Liu was the only person detained.
He remained in jail for the rest of his days, missing the 2010 ceremony when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His medal and diploma were placed on an empty chair as a symbol of Liu's unfair imprisonment. His wife Liu Xia would be placed under house arrest in Beijing the same day.
Liu remained a prisoner of the Chinese state until his death, release from jail on June 26, 2017, only to be transferred to a nearby hospital in the final stages of liver cancer. Liu Xia was with her husband in hospital during his few remaining days. China’s most famous dissident died, still in custody, at the age of 61.
“[Liu Xiaobo] fought for freedom and democracy for more than 30 years, becoming a monument to morality and justice and a source of inspiration,” says Wen Kejian, a fellow writer. That's why he's a Time Traveler Tours #HistoryHero.
We must all join to keep Liu's message alive for the stakes are too high today. Even on the day of Liu’s death, a particular person who insists on commanding the world stage praised Chinese President Xi as a “terrific” and “talented” leader. That person was the sitting president of the United States.