On July 13, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, a political prisoner in China and a champion of democracy, died of liver cancer in a Chinese hospital. The world mourned, but in China his death was barely noted.
The Chinese government is responsible for Liu Xiaobo’s death. It imprisoned him unjustly, then withheld proper medical treatment until his cancer was too advanced to treat. At the end it spurned international appeals to allow him to emigrate abroad with his wife so he could die a free man in a free country.
This final cruelty was undoubtedly approved by Chinese President Xi Jinping, a ruthless dictator whom President Trump recently praised as “a very good man...[who] wants to do what’s right for China.”
Why did the Chinese Communist dictatorship imprison Liu Xiaobo? Why was he awarded a Nobel Peace Prize? Why should we care?
Liu Xiaobo was an idealistic teacher and writer who believed that Chinese should enjoy the same rights of citizens in democracies around the world to choose their leaders and to express themselves freely.
In 1989, when massive, peaceful public demonstrations occurred throughout China, Liu stood with the millions who called for political reform. When tanks and artillery were sent to crush the demonstrations, Liu Xiaobo helped negotiate the withdrawal of the remaining students from Tiananmen Square. In spite of his efforts, on that terrible night of June 3, 1989, hundreds or thousands of innocent persons were killed.
The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union alerted Chinese Communist leaders to the inherent fragility of autocracies. Here today; gone tomorrow.
To secure their power Chinese leaders resorted to repression, absolute intolerance for even the mildest forms of dissent. In 2008, Liu Xiaobo and other Chinese intellectuals drafted Charter 08, a moderately worded manifesto calling for peaceful political change in China. Liu was charged with subverting state authority. In China the verdict is never in doubt. Sentenced to an 11-year prison term, Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 “for his long and nonviolent struggle for human rights in China.” An empty chair on the stage in Stockholm represented the absent prisoner.
Liu Xiaobo’s wife, guilty of nothing but marriage to her husband, has been under house arrest and systematically harassed by security forces.
The values that Liu Xiaobo lived and died for are also our values, the rights and freedoms incorporated in our political and social system, which are threatened by autocrats such as China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
There is no assurance that our values will prevail, especially when we treat dictators as friends, as President Trump has done, and when we place short-term interests above the principles on which our republic was founded. Liu Xiaobo’s life and death should serve as a poignant reminder that freedom has a price.
Steven I. Levine is Research Faculty Associate in the Department of History at the University of Montana.
Bob Brown is a retired Senior Research and Teaching Fellow at the Mansfield Center and former Montana Senate President and Secretary of State.