Sat, Jul 15, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Honoring the legacy of dissident Liu Xiaobo

By Joseph T.H. Lee 李榭熙

Although tragic and disheartening, the death of Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) came as no surprise. As the Chinese Nobel laureate is mourned, his extraordinary courage and commitment toward China’s self-transformation into a democratic polity should be remembered.

Resembling a Confucian junzi (君子, gentleman) or an Old Testament prophet, he lived up to the role of a rational and conscientious intellectual who made the best out of the worst situation.

His departure marks the beginning of the end of the Tiananmen generation.

Many veterans of China’s Tiananmen pro-democracy movement are still alive and active. Like Liu, their trajectories have been greatly influenced by those unforgettable moments and sacrifices in the spring of 1989.

Their high-profile leaders either live in exile or are imprisoned. The less famous ones keep a low profile, working for non-governmental organizations and fighting tirelessly for progressive change.

Liu’s literary and political thought changed over time. To examine his thinking and legacy, it will take time for researchers to gather his personal archives and analyze his publications against opinions expressed in private.

Watching the 1995 documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace directed by Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon teaches that Liu did not instigate a popular revolution to subvert the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) state in 1989. He joined the Tiananmen protesters at a later stage.

When he launched a hunger strike the day before the brutal military crackdown, he wanted to boost the morale of the students who had occupied Beijing’s Tiananmen Square for weeks.

As the Chinese People’s Liberation Army moved in to clear the square before dawn on June 4, he and other intellectuals mediated between protesters and military officials to save innocent people from being gunned down.

He was a peacemaker, not a malevolent political instigator. It is the state that should be held accountable for the massacre.

A champion of truth and nonviolent activism, Liu strove to fulfill his responsibility toward the innocent victims of June 4, 1989.

After the Tiananmen crackdown, he became more sophisticated and down-to-earth. He was too much of a realist to think that he could awaken the entire nation and subvert China’s authoritarian power structure with a single action.

When he helped write Charter 08, a moderate document that advocated human rights, he sought institutional reform within the CCP state. Most of his principles and proposals were policies of a reformist, not a revolutionary.

Sadly, top CCP leaders felt threatened by his efforts to promote liberal ideals and use of social media to build networks across the country. The government eventually convicted him of spreading counterrevolutionary propaganda and put him behind bars.

Liu’s untimely death might give rise to a widespread feeling that nonviolence is an outdated strategy to deal with a mighty state ready to suppress dissent. An overwhelming sense of defeat, despair and retreat might discourage people from following in Liu’s footsteps and pursue incremental changes through peaceful action.

Such frustration would lead to the stage of civil paralysis in which the autocratic regime thrives, and the marginalized, instead of voicing out their convictions, would remain indifferent and even praise their oppressors — not what Liu would have wanted to see if he were still alive.

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