‘Fiercely independent’: Friend remembers Chinese Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo

A photograph of imprisoned 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, from The Silent Strength of Liu Xia, an exhibit of photographs by his wife Liu Xia. (AP Photo/Columbia University)

July 13, 2017 Episode Transcript
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Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident who won the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison for his pro-democracy charter, died on Thursday after being diagnosed with cancer in late May. He was 61.

Xiaobo was a vocal critic of the Chinese government’s one party system. In 2009, Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison for writing the Charter 08, a petition that called for a political transformation in China.

The Shenyang Bureau of Justice announced on their website that Liu suffered multiple organ failures before he died. He was moved to a hospital in the northeastern city of Shenyang last month, but was not allowed to leave the country to seek medical treatment for his late-stage liver cancer.

Perry Link edited Liu Xiaobo’s book of essays, No Enemies, No Hatred and spoke with him several times while Liu was editing the Charter 08.

Link spoke with As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch about the Nobel laureate. Here is part of their conversation.

Liu Xiaobo was ‘arguably the most prominent dissident in the last couple of decades,’ says editor Perry Link. (Will Burgess/Reuters)

LL: How are you and other friends feeling about the death of Liu Xiaobo?

PL: We anticipated it because about 10 days ago we knew he had serious liver cancer. So intellectually it isn’t a shock, but emotionally of course it is. When this happens it hits hard.

LL: And there was also some suggestion, at least in the media, that there was going to be the attempt to bring him to the United States for treatment. So was there any optimism or hope on your part that he might live longer?

‘The Chinese government, for now two decades, has been focused on trying to throttle him.’
– Perry Link
PL: Yes, there was always that hope. A few days ago, a German and an American doctor saw him and they judged that it was still possible to bring him abroad and get the very best treatment that they could give him and they made that offer. The Chinese government rejected the possibility of his traveling though. So it was just a matter of waiting.

LL: How did you feel about that, when the Chinese government refused that?

PL: Well that was to be expected. The Chinese government, for two decades, has been focused on trying to throttle him. He has not said anything — that the world has heard — since his final statement at trial in the year 2009.

The main goal of the Chinese government is to be sure that he can’t make that kind of speech.

A look at the life of Chinese political prisoner Liu Xiaobo, who died at age 61. Read more here: https://t.co/X7YqFaC9oK pic.twitter.com/RAV08ROBkb

— The Associated Press (@AP) July 13, 2017

LL: How did you first come to know Mr. Liu?

PL: I knew him by reputation because we both work in the field of modern Chinese literature. And in the 1980s, when he was still a graduate student, he became famous in our field for writing fiery denunciations of virtually every contemporary Chinese writer including ones that were critical of the government.

He was fiercely independent in his own thinking and he blamed anyone who wasn’t fiercely independent. And for that reason, I thought he was a powerful, interesting person but not necessarily a deep thinker. But then a few years ago, after he got his Nobel award and Harvard University Press asked me to edit a collection of his works, I read a lot of his works and was really surprised at how deeply erudite he is on an amazingly broad range of topics.

A pro-democracy activist cries over the death of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo outside China’s liaison office in Hong Kong. (Bobby Yip/ Reuters)

LL: Now you never met him in person, but in speaking with him on the phone what was he like?

PL: He’s blunt, to put it bluntly. So he can be a bit abrasive if you don’t get used to this because he says exactly what he thinks. But he doesn’t hold grudges. He never did. He’s just constitutionally honest, if I can put it that way.

LL: He wrote a pro-democracy manifesto called Charter 08 and you worked with him on that and you translated it. So with that famous bluntness in mind, what was it like to work with him?

PL: That democracy manifesto Charter 08, he didn’t begin. A number of his friends conceived it and drafted it and he joined in midstream and worked to edit it and to solicit signatures for it. He became the overall editor and he volunteered to take responsibility for it, which means he would put his own neck on the chopping block when the regime cracked down and indeed that’s what happened.

Thorbjoern Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, looks down at the Nobel certificate and medal on the empty chair where Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo would have sat had he not been imprisoned. (Heiko Junge/Reuters)

Up until just the final days before the charter was released, he was calling me saying “add these words, delete those words,” and so on. And, I did. But after a while I thought, “No, can’t do this.” About 300 people have already signed this document and there’s no way he can check all of these word changes with them. It wasn’t really fair. So, I told him that I won’t make any more changes. And he was a bit blunt, I think, in not liking that.

LL: Many activists are still asking the Chinese government to bring his wife Liu Xia to the United States. Now that he has died, do you think there is any chance that will happen?

Liu Xia, wife of 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, has been held under house arrest since her husband won the Novel Peace Prize. (Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press)

PL: It’s hard to predict these things. But now that he’s dead, the main fear that the government has that his intellect will spill forward is dead into eternity. And this relieves the pressure they feel on trying to bottle her up. But the other side of that coin is that the only person who was able to see him for all of the last seven years was her. She was able to see him every month, on condition that she be quiet about what he said. If she comes out, and he’s dead, what’s to stop her from saying more about what he was thinking?

An image of Liu Xiaobo is projected on a hotel in the centre of Oslo following the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony Dec. 10, 2010. (Toby Melville/ Reuters)

LL: What legacy do you think Liu Xiaobo leaves behind?

PL: What stands out about him, is he never filtered what he thought.

Of course he became famous when he got the Nobel Prize. So with the Nobel Prize, he became arguably the most prominent dissident in the last couple of decades.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. To hear more from Perry Link, listen to our broadcast interview.

With files from The Associated Press


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