Liu Xiaobo, China’s most famous dissident, has died at the age of 61 after languishing in a Manchurian prison since 23 June 2009.
Liu spent decades calling for respect for human rights and far-reaching political reform, efforts that in 2010 won him the Nobel Peace Prize. In awarding him the prize, the Nobel Committee noted “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”
Liu, of course, committed the ultimate “counter-revolutionary” act, courageously calling for an end to the one-party dictatorship that rules China. But it was not solely for these crimes that he was charged with “inciting subversion of state power” and sentenced to a prison term of eleven years. Liu’s problems with Chinese political culture – and the Party-State’s problems with him – go much, much deeper.
Professor Liu was a polymath – he was a literary critic, prolific writer, poet, and human rights activist all rolled into one – but he was also the most incisive social critic that China has produced since Lu Xun. And he was roundly hated by the regime not only for questioning its authority but also for criticizing its increasingly frantic efforts to legitimize its rule in the eyes of the Chinese people through hyper-nationalistic appeals.
Liu was only the third person in history to receive the Nobel Peace Prize while in jail, and only the second to be denied the right to have a representative accept the Prize on his behalf. The first, it is worth recalling, was Carl von Ossietzky, a German pacifist jailed by Hitler in 1933 for repeatedly warning of the dangers of militarism and Nazism and died there. Liu was jailed, for the fourth time, for similar offenses: In his essays, collected by Perry Link in No Enemies, No Hatred, he questioned the “bellicose nationalism” of the Chinese Party-State – and the underlying national narcissism of the Chinese mind that it played upon.
To be sure, Liu tirelessly promoted constitutional government, respect for human rights, and other democratic reforms for decades, but his critique goes much deeper than this. In an essay entitled, “Bellicose and Thuggish: The Roots of Chinese ‘Patriotism’ at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century,” he argued that the Chinese Party-State has consciously (and self-servingly) channeled the collective narcissism of the Chinese people into a kind of hyper-nationalist insanity. This xenophobic, jingoistic patriotism, he believed, had led to a general loss of reason among the population, obliterated universal values of human rights, and rendered the Chinese blind to the faults of their leaders.
He also believed, with good reason, that the Party’s Orwellian control over society – the ceaseless stoking of Great Han Chauvinism by the state-run media, by Party-State mouthpieces masquerading as intellectuals, and by other members of the political elite – has meant the death of critical thought. The result is that most of the Chinese population is by now so uncritically accepting of the Party’s propaganda that they mistake the illusions spun by a dictatorial regime intent upon its own aggrandizement for actual reality.
It is not surprising that, for pulling back the curtain and exposing its machinations, the Chinese Party-State imprisoned him. Later, by denying him medical care when he became ill, that same regime effectively sentenced him to death. This is known in China as “murder without spilling blood.” And it is a murder that Beijing has now, to the horror of the world, carried out.
May he rest in peace.
Steven W. Mosher is the President of the Population Research Institute and a former Commissioner of the Commission on Broadcasting to the People’s Republic of China.