Murdered but Undefeated

Liu Xiaobo has been in my thoughts for nearly 30 years since I went into exile as a result of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, but I have been uncertain what to say in the last week since the Chinese government put him on medical parole to die before our eyes, because it is too personal, too painful for me.

I was in the front sitting, Wang Dan is in a shade looking at me, Liu Xiaobo, talking. June 2nd, 1989 . Tienanmen square. Photo: Scott Savitt

But I have to say something, because in my memories, the Liu Xiabo who just died was kind, caring, generous, conscientious, and most importantly, genuine — an intellectual who cared.

So, I will start with a simple story.

During that student movement, I was to talk to US broadcaster Barbara Walters. Liu Xiaobo was my advisor on almost everything I did during the protests of 1989, and he helped to prep me for the interview.

I asked him, “What if she asks, what it’s like in Tiananmen Square? Do the students know what they want? Is it orderly? Is it hygienic?”

He looked at me in exasperation, and said, “Tell the truth.”

I was shocked. In China, you did not tell the truth.

If someone asked you whether you liked a novel, your response would depend on who you were talking to. A truthful answer might be dangerous, and it affected everything you said, from what you thought about jazz — if you knew about it — to your taste for chocolate.

But dishonesty was something that Liu Xiaobo could not tolerate. He would urge us to tell the truth, sometimes to the point that he became angry. When Liu Xiaobo became angry, he stuttered — and the stutter made him angrier still, in frustration.

The only time he became angry with me — stuttered in my presence — was the time I could not understand the value of telling the truth when he was coaching me to talk to the Western media.

Liu Xiaobo was my mentor. His generous and patient personality animated my abstract ideas of inclusiveness, the separation of powers and compromise as a strategy. After I was exiled from China, I thought for years about this, and it affirmed for me that in 1989 we were demanding inclusiveness, which made it a movement for democracy.

Liu Xiaobo understood that before I did.

Over the course of a month, in early 1989, Liu Xiaobo taught me to be a student leader. It was his influence that years later made me realize what we were protesting about. It was his influence at the time that led me to conclude that we needed to compromise and lead the students out of Tiananmen Square before there was a bloodbath.

There was a bloodbath all the same.

Somewhat miraculously, I ended up in Hong Kong. Liu Xiaobo went to jail for three years.

In 1992 Liu Xiaobo came to visit me in San Francisco. It took me some time to find him at the airport, but when I did, we hugged as separated family members with three-years of unspoken words.

I had been in the US for three years then. I was just 24. I drove him to my apartment. It seemed just moments ago we had been in Tiananmen together, and now I was driving him into town in a Mitsubishi. He was as interested in the car as he was the Golden Gate Bridge, because it was his first time to leave China since being released from jail and everything was new to him.

Me, I was still in a state of turmoil. He was angry and sad at the same time.

The anger is difficult to explain. Liu Xiaobo is both self-aware and proud, and under interrogation he conceded that he saw no deaths on Tiananmen Square, though he knew that there were deaths all over Beijing on June 4 1989. He was most angry with himself. Of course, he was angry with the government, but he was angry that there was a massacre. He had failed to prevent it, and it haunted him more than anything else in his life.

In certain ways he was self-serving and narcissistic, but you could confront him with it, and he would admit it. He was always ready to confront the truth — as painful as it might be.

I cooked dinner. I had bought some erguotou, his favorite drink. Halfway through dinner, the conversation lapsed and perhaps 30 seconds of silence followed — and then he started to sob. It was the horrifying tears of a bereft child, an outburst of pure emotion. My girlfriend of the time ran away and Liu Xiaobo and I were left together. When he recovered, we did not speak about the tears.

We went back to eating.

Then he said something. He said, “One day if we have power, we have to remind ourselves to be humble about that power.”

I said, “Of course,” but I knew they were words I would think about for the rest of my life.

I never saw Liu Xiaobo again after San Francisco, except on Skype, as similarly I have never seen my parents except on Skype since China exiled me.

But I know he cried at least one more time. It was 18 years later, when his wife Liu Xia told him he had won the Nobel Peace Prize in a prison visit. I was told, he broke down in tears and said, “The award belongs to those who sacrificed their lives in 1989.”

Liu was imprisoned for drafting Charter 08, which was signed by some 300 independent Chinese intellectuals in support of democracy and citizen rights for China.

December 10th, 2010, Oslo. The empty Chair and I.

I am sure all of those brave 300 men and women saw what I saw in Liu Xiaobo — a genuine human being, determined, idealistic, extremely conscientious, yet a flesh-and-blood human like any of the rest of us.

Liu Xiaobo, who has died after eight years in jail, despite being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, was a complex human being, but he was bold, an intellectual, and in China he was a threat because he understood that civil society can organize against corruption and autocracy.

Beijing released him from jail, not for the medical treatment he deserved, but simply to die. In other words, he was murdered by a murderous regime.

It is time for the world to ask itself, are we accomplices, do we appease this, or do we stand up against so-called Chinese values?

Republishing Authorized.