China’s most famous political prisoner, the Nobel laureate and democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo, has died at the age of 61.
The Chinese intellectual and activist, who championed non-violent resistance as a way of overcoming “forceful tyranny”, is the first Nobel peace prize winner to die in custody since German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, the 1935 recipient, who died under surveillance after years confined to Nazi concentration camps.
Last month he was granted medical parole and moved to a hospital in north-eastern China, where he was reportedly treated in an isolated ward under armed guard.
World leaders, including the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, had urged China to allow the dying dissident to travel overseas to receive medical care that supporters claimed could have prolonged his life. But China refused, prompting criticism that its Communist party’s leaders were wilfully and intentionally shortening the dissident’s life in order to deny him one last opportunity to denounce their rule.
On Thursday night authorities in the north-eastern city of Shenyang, where he was being treated, confirmed in a short statement that he had died of multiple organ failure.
News of Liu’s death sparked an immediate outpouring of grief and rage. His peaceful activism and biting criticism of one-party rule meant he had spent almost a quarter of his life behind bars.
“It is so hard. I don’t know if I can say anything,” said the author and activist Tienchi Martin-Liao, a longtime friend, breaking down in tears as she learned of Liu’s death.
“I hate this government … I am furious and lots of people share my feeling. It is not only sadness – it is fury. How can a regime treat a person like Liu Xiaobo like this? I don’t have the words to describe it.
“This is unbearable. This will go down in history. No one should forget what this government and the Xi Jinping administration has done. It is unforgivable. It is really unforgivable.”
“Liu Xiaobo is immortal, no matter whether he is alive or dead,” said Hu Ping, a friend of almost three decades who edits a pro-democracy journal called the Beijing Spring. “Liu Xiaobo is a man of greatness, a saint.”
Zhao Hui, a writer and activist who goes by the pen name Mo Zhixu, said: “I feel bitter hatred … It is so cruel and inhuman.”
The leader of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awards the prize, said the Chinese government “bears a heavy responsibility for his premature death”.
“We find it deeply disturbing that Liu Xiaobo was not transferred to a facility where he could receive adequate medical treatment before he became terminally ill,” said Berit Reiss-Andersen.
Eva Pils, an expert in Chinese law and human rights from King’s College London, said that while Beijing bristled at comparisons between Liu and Ossietzky, “in a way, unfortunately, this ending reinforces that comparison – because effectively they have just let him die in their care”.
Pils added: “It’s a grim ending.”
Hu said his friend’s plight highlighted the bleak realities facing activists living under President Xi Jinping, who has presided over what observers call the most severe political chill since the days following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.
“I think the situation in China now is deteriorating – and the way in which Liu has been treated clearly shows us what the current situation is, and how it goes beyond our imagination.”
Jerome Cohen, the director of the US-Asia Law Institute at New York University and an expert in human rights in China, said Liu’s death ended “a horrible ordeal”. But he said the dissident might have been pleased to have made one final political splash after having been largely forgotten by the world following his Nobel victory. “His final contribution was reminding us of the oppression in China and the need to support those people who continue to be oppressed,” Cohen said.
Born in the northern province of Jilin in 1955, Liu was part of the first generation of Chinese students to go to university after they reopened following the upheaval of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. He studied Chinese literature and went on to become a revered writer and public intellectual.
When pro-democracy protests broke out in Beijing in the spring of 1989, Liu was lecturing in New York but decided to return despite having previously shown little interest in politics.
“He thought: ‘This is where I should be and this is where I can make a contribution. So I am going there’,” said Perry Link, a Chinese literature expert from the University of California, Riverside, who knew him.
Liu flew back to Beijing and headed to Tiananmen Square, where he played a central role in the protests. He led a hunger strike shortly before the 4 June military crackdown in which hundreds, possibly thousands of lives were lost. He was jailed for almost two years for his role in what Beijing called “counter-revolutionary” riots. The experience served as a political awakening that transformed Liu into a lifelong activist and champion of democracy.
Over the coming years Liu continued to speak out, despite two more stints behind bars, railing incessantly against China’s authoritarian regime in essays and interviews. Link described Liu as a “Gandhian type” who was committed to peaceful resistance but who wrote “with clearly no fear of what might befall him”.
He was also a serious intellect. Link said he had been “smitten by the range” of topics covered in his friend’s texts, which covered everything from Chinese humour, to the history of sex, Confucian philosophy, Olympic gold medals, Obama’s first election and even poems about St Augustine and Emanuel Kant.
The “crime” that lead to Liu spending his final years behind bars was Charter 08, a 2008 declaration inspired by Charter 77, a manifesto published by Czechoslovakian dissidents in 1977. “The current system has become backward to the point that change cannot be avoided,” it warned, calling for an end to one-party rule.
Authorities did not approve. Hours before it was due to be published, Liu, who had been one of the document’s drafters, was detained at his Beijing home. The following year he was handed an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power”.
“The charter was the first public document since 1949 to dare to mention the end of one-party rule,” said Link. “But of course the problem with having an influence is that the crackdown has been effective. A lot of young people don’t know about the charter and don’t know about Liu Xiaobo now.”
In 2010, Liu was awarded the Nobel peace prize for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”. He was represented at the award ceremony by an empty chair. When he was informed of his victory he reportedly said: “I dedicate this prize to the lost souls of 4 June,” in reference to the victims of the Tiananmen massacre.
“She is a wonderful woman. A really wonderful woman,” says Jean-Philippe Béja, a French academic and longstanding friend. “I don’t even dare to imagine how she feels now.”
Pils said Liu would be remembered for his “wise and forceful” style of political resistance. Supporters had been counting the days until his expected release from prison in 2019. “Now this is extremely disappointing. Naturally, I, like many others, had been counting down to the time of his release. It’s so unfair.”
Link said Liu would be remembered as “a stubborn truth-teller” and someone who opened “the possibility of a different kind of China”.
“That is a lasting legacy. The model of how an independent intellectual stands up to the state will be admired if it is not completely obliterated.”
Jared Genser, a US lawyer who had been trying to secure Liu’s release, said he had not died in vain. “Liu’s ideas and his dreams will persist, spread, and will, one day, come to fruition … And his courage and his sacrifice for his country will inspire millions of Chinese activists and dissidents to persevere until China has become the multiparty democracy that Liu knew to his core was within its people’s grasp.” Béja said Liu’s ideas would continue to inspire, long after his death. “It’s always very hard to evaluate the impact of a thinker or of an actor but I am sure that – despite all the efforts by the party – he won’t be forgotten.”