Liu Xiaobo dedicated his life to campaigning for human rights and free expression in China, serving as President of the Independent PEN Chinese Center from 2003-2007 and as Honorary President of PEN international after that.
In recognition of his lifelong campaigning, Liu received the PEN Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
He died while serving an eleven-year prison sentence for penning Charter 08, a declaration which called for political reform, greater human rights, and an end to one-party rule in China. It was the product of a lifetime’s work around these issues.
He was first arrested in 1989 following his support of the Tiananmen Square protests. Having given up his role at Columbia University in the USA, Liu flew back to China in order to support the student protests for democracy and to encourage the Chinese government to enter into a dialogue with the Dalai Llama. Liu undertook his own hunger strike to demonstrate his support.
He was arrested again in 1995 and imprisoned again from 1996-1999 on suspicion of inciting subversion of state power.
In 2008, he was arrested along with fellow activist Zhang Zuhua, for his role in co-writing Charter 08. While Zhang was released shortly after, Liu was detained without access to a lawyer or writing materials in the No.1 Detention Centre in Beijing.
“Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.”from ‘I Have No Enemies: My Final Statement’
He was convicted in 2009 for “inciting subversion to state power” and sentenced to eleven years in prison and two year’s deprivation of political rights. The defence was not permitted to present evidence during the hearing, which lasted less than three hours.
Liu was the first Chinese citizen to be awarded a Nobel Prize while still residing in China, in this case, in prison. His absence was represented at the Oslo ceremony by an empty chair, now an important way of noting the silencing of writers in prison, particularly those denied the rights of habeus corpus.
In a statement read in absentia entitled ‘I Have No Enemies: My Final Statement’ Liu described his life before his first prison sentence:
‘I was a public intellectual, writing articles and books that created quite a stir in the 1980s, frequently receiving invitations to give talks around the country and going abroad as a visiting school upon invitation from Europe and America.’
He outlined his imprisonment as ‘a tragedy for me personally and for a China that has already seen thirty years of reform and opening up.’
Whilst acknowledging that the crimes with which he was charged were both ‘speech crimes’, Liu pointed out that he did not regard the judges, the policemen or even the prosecutors who had brought cases against him over the years as his enemies: ‘Hatred can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience.’
China’s ‘enemy mentality’, he argues, ‘will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy.’
He expressed his desire ‘to counter the regime’s hostility with utmost good will, and to dispel hatred with love.’
He died in hospital after being given medical parole for late stage liver cancer on 13 July 2017. He was 61.
His wife Liu Xia remains under house arrest, despite never facing any formal charges.