China’s most famous political dissident died in state custody Thursday.
Liu Xiaobo spent more than a decade in prison for his tireless efforts to bring about political reform and democracy in China. He was first thrown in prison for his involvement in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, which ended in bloodshed, and at the time of his death, he was serving an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power,” participating in the drafting of a document condemning communism and advocating democratic reform and the protection of human rights.
Liu believed that liberty and democracy were not Western ideas unsuitable for China, but rather universal concepts applicable to all societies, and for his actions, he was jailed.
While serving his sentence in Jinzhou Prison in Northeastern China, Liu was awarded a Nobel prize for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” Liu reportedly had an opportunity early on to leave China, but he decided to stay behind and continue the fight for his vision of a free and democratic China. At the award ceremony, his absence was marked by an empty chair.
China condemned the award, put Liu’s wife Liu Xia under house arrest, and suspended bilateral relations with Norway in response. China has since normalized relations with Norway, but Liu Xia is still under house arrest, although she has never been charged with a crime.
While in prison, Liu was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer, which led to multiple organ failure and ultimately his death. With his passing, he has become the first Nobel laureate to die in state custody since Carl von Ossietzky passed away in Nazi Germany.
Liu’s death was mourned in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and in many countries around the world.
Liu was representative of “ideas that resonate with millions of people all over the world, even in China. These ideas cannot be imprisoned and will never die,” Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said in a statement Thursday.
“We now have to come to terms with the fact that his chair will forever remain empty,” she further explained, “At the same time, it is our deep conviction that Liu Xiaobo will remain a powerful symbol for all who fight for freedom, democracy and a better world.”
Multiple U.S. officials issued kind statements honoring Liu’s memory. “Liu dedicated his life to the betterment of his country and humankind, and to the pursuit of justice and liberty,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement.
U.S. Ambassador to China Terry Branstad called Liu a “courageous advocate” and “deeply principled role model who deserved respect and adulation, not the prison sentences to which he was subjected.” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer called Liu a “poet, scholar, and courageous advocate” who “dedicated his life to the pursuit of democracy and liberty.” Several American officials demanded Liu Xia’s release.
China has responded with tough rhetoric and critical reporting.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang criticized foreign officials for “making improper comments on Liu Xiaobo’s death of illness.”
“China is a country under the rule of law. The handling of Liu Xiaobo’ s case belongs to China’s internal affairs, and foreign countries are in no position to make improper remarks,” he said in a statement on the official social media account for the ministry.
The nationalist Global Times, a publication affiliated with the leading newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, said Liu was a “victim led astray by the West.”
“Liu’s last days were politicized by the forces overseas,” the paper wrote,” They used Liu’s illness as a tool to boost their image and demonize China. They aren’t really interested in prolonging Liu’s life.”
“The West has bestowed upon Liu a halo, which will not linger,” the Global Times asserted, “One can create some waves against the current, but history will eventually wash away these traces … Even if he could live longer, [Liu] would never have achieved his political goals that are in opposition to the path of history.”
In most Chinese reports on Liu’s death, there was no mention of his Nobel prize. Instead, he was referred to as a criminal who tried to “overthrow the Chinese government.”
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