Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and China’s most prominent political prisoner, today died at a hospital in the northeastern city of Shenyang following a battle with cancer. Chinese authorities ignored international pleas to let the 61-year-old writer and human rights activist spend his final days free and abroad. Last month, he was transferred from prison to a heavily- guarded hospital to be treated for late-stage liver cancer.
In an online announcement, the judicial bureau of the city of Shenyang said he died of multiple organ failure. Liu died three days after going into intensive care at the First Hospital of China Medical University, it said.
Liu had been hospitalized for advanced liver cancer diagnosed in prison in May. His supporters, foreign governments and international human rights organisations had urged China to allow him to receive treatment abroad, but Chinese authorities insisted he was receiving the best care possible for a disease that had spread throughout his body. Both Germany and the United States had offered to take in Liu for treatment.
Liu was born on December 28, 1955, in the northeastern city of Changchun, the son of a language and literature professor who was a committed party member. The middle child in a family of five boys, he was among the first students to attend Jilin University when college entrance examinations resumed following the chaotic 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.
Liu studied Chinese literature there and later moved to the capital, first as a graduate student then as a lecturer at Beijing Normal University.
Liu came to prominence following the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, which he called the “major turning point” in his life. Liu had been a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York but returned early to China in May 1989 to join the movement that was sweeping the country and which the Communist Party regarded as a grave challenge to its authority.
When the Chinese government sent troops and tanks into Beijing to quash the protests on the night of June 3-4, Liu persuaded some students to leave the square rather than face down the army. The military crackdown killed hundreds, possibly thousands, of people and heralded a more repressive era.
Liu became one of hundreds of Chinese imprisoned for crimes linked to the demonstrations. It was only the first of four stays in prisons owing to his ideology.
His final prison sentence was for co-authoring “Charter 08,” a document circulated in 2008 that called for more freedom of expression, human rights and an independent judiciary in China. Although Liu wasn’t the initiator, he was a prominent force behind it and already well known to the authorities. He was sentenced for inciting subversion by advocating political reforms and greater human rights in China.
“What I demanded of myself was this: whether as a person or as a writer, I would lead a life of honesty, responsibility, and dignity,” Liu wrote in “I Have No Enemies: My Final Statement,” which he had hoped to read out in court when being sentenced in 2009. He was not permitted to do so and received an 11-year prison sentence.
After spending nearly two years in detention following the Tiananmen crackdown, Liu was detained for the second time in 1995 after drafting a plea for political reform. Later that year, he was detained a third time after co-drafting “Opinion on Some Major Issues Concerning our Country Today.” That resulted in a three-year sentence to a labour camp, during which time he married Liu Xia. He is survived by his wife and by his son from his first marriage.
Released in 1999, he joined the international literary and human rights organization PEN and continued advocating for human rights and democracy.
In 2010, while Liu was serving his fourth and final sentence in a prison in a small city in China’s northeast, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, with the Norwegian-based committee citing Liu’s “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”
The award enraged China’s government, which condemned it as a political farce. Within days, Liu’s wife, artist and poet Liu Xia, was put under house arrest, despite not being convicted of any crime. China also punished Norway, even though its government has no say over the independent Nobel panel’s decisions. China suspended a bilateral trade deal and restricted imports of Norwegian salmon, and relations only resumed in 2017.
Dozens of Liu’s supporters were prevented from leaving the country to accept the award on Liu’s behalf. Instead, Liu’s absence at the prize-giving ceremony in Oslo, Norway, was marked by an empty chair. Another empty chair was for his wife Liu Xia.
(With AP inputs)