By Cadence Quaranta.
On July 15, just two days after Liu Xiaobo’s death, a small group of family and friends were seen gathered around the famous Chinese human rights activist’s casket, each bowing three times before the body, silently mourning. After the cremation, Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, clutched her husband’s ashes tightly. Chinese government officials kept a watchful eye over the entire ceremony, even when Liu Xia’s pain showed through her tears as her husband’s ashes were lowered into the sea.
Even at his funeral, the Chinese government was threatened by Liu Xiaobo. Mr. Liu lived a life of defiance, and even his legacy prompted supporters to follow his lead. Already, protests have sprouted in Hong Kong, with dissidents holding similar signs as the ones made by students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He was not permitted a grave for fear that supporters would use it as a symbol of rebellion against the fight for human rights and democracy. After all, the Tiananmen Square protests, arguably the most severe threat to the government’s power in Chinese history, started as a public mourning of the death of government official, Hu Yaobang, who fought for a more transparent government.
Mr. Liu’s public activism began with his role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. He supported the democratic motives of the student protesters, and started a hunger strike in the square in solidarity. However, after he received word that the Chinese government was planning to use force to suppress the peaceful protests, he tried to convince students to return to their campuses to prevent more bloodshed than was already going to occur. He negotiated with the military troops to devise a safe way for protesters to exit the square. Through his efforts, he saved thousands of lives that day, and many survivors of the massacre have voiced their gratitude for his actions.
However, the Chinese government was not as appreciative of his efforts. Just a few days after the protests, government officials arrested and sentenced him to 21 months in jail for supporting the protests. He lost his job as a professor at a university, the Communist Party banned his books on the mainland, his name was censored in the media, and he was classified as a “black hand” who had tried to overthrow the government.
He wasn’t defeated, however, continuing to fight for the human rights of Chinese citizens. His time in jail did not stop there either, as he continued to be detained for his rebellions and demands of democracy. Added to his list of “crimes” were the anti-government publications and organizations that he was involved with. He wrote articles and books about his pursuit for democracy. Monologues of a Doomsday Survivor was his most notable book. In it, he shared his experiences at the Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown. This book, along with many of his others, was blacklisted and banned from the Chinese market. In addition, he was the president of the magazine called Minzhu Zhongguo. This magazine operated under the goal of promoting a more democratic government. He was also the president of a non-profit organization, Independent Chinese PEN Center, which was fighting for writers and their right to freedom of speech and expression.
In 2008, Liu was again arrested. This time for “inciting subversion of state power,” after he wrote Charter 08 under the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Charter demanded democratic political change in China, included in its 19 recommendations was an independent judiciary, a new constitution, as well as freedom of expression and religion. The letter gained almost 300 signatures from Chinese prominent figures, activists, and intellectuals as soon as it was published, and 8,600 signatures overall, including overseas signers. He received an 11 year jail sentence.
He was behind bars, serving this sentence, even when he was supposed to be receiving a Nobel Peace Prize for his peaceful fight for human rights in China. Liu Xiaobo was the first Chinese citizen living in China to receive a Nobel award. However, his presence at the award ceremony in Norway was represented simply by an empty chair. His lecture was read by a Norwegian actress. His award was never received.
He died of advanced liver cancer while still serving his 11 year sentence.
Although many foreign newspapers acknowledge Liu Xiaobo’s accomplishments, his activism, and his Nobel Peace Prize, no mention is made of him in the Chinese media. Instead of pictures of Liu on the day of his death, President Xi Jinping smiled up from the covers of newspapers all over the country as he shook the hand of the Canadian president. All traces of Mr. Liu on the internet have been found and destroyed by the government. Even simple pictures of burning candles in mourning of his death were erased.
Because of this censorship, although Liu was fighting for their human rights, many Chinese citizens do not know of him at all. Chinese tourists in Hong Kong, during the marches in protest of the actions of the Chinese government in silencing Liu Xiaobo, were confused as they had never even heard his name before. They were puzzled at what the Hong Kong protesters were fighting for, simply because they had no knowledge of this situation at all. Citizens of other countries knew more about a Chinese human rights activist than the people whose rights he was fighting for – the people of China.
All that remains now, in his remembrance, are a few detached lines of poetry that have dodged the sharp eyes of the government. They were written by Liu Xia, in honour of her husband. Lines such as “playing a dangerous game/in the human world” are shared on social media by the few that have heard of Liu, in quiet protest against censorship and in solidarity with the activist.
The Chinese government has turned the internet into a place where they can shape the minds of their citizens. A place that has been called a “walled garden” by many, describing an environment in which everything is tightly regulated and controlled. Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, Snapchat, and even Google, have all been blocked in China. These media outlets refused to have their content censored by the Chinese government. Baidu, the Chinese search engine, however, was created by the government so that it could be censored. All traces of the Tiananmen Square crackdown as well as other events and articles that show a negative image of the government have been blocked from the internet. Censorship not only dictates internet content in China, but officials have also banned books including those of Liu Xiaobo, taken out “offensive” lines from TV shows, and fired professors that teach curriculums involving anything other than a positive image of China.
The Chinese government is fearful of the power of informed, free, and independent citizens. From the Chinese government’s perspective, allowing Chinese citizens to exercise this power by gaining these rights is dangerous. They saw the Tiananmen Square protests, in which citizens used their power, as severe threats to the government’s control over the country and to their ability to maintain order and security. Censorship is a way of limiting the citizens’ power and rights, and consequently more possible threats to governmental control. However, many including Liu Xiaobo would argue that these rights are human rights, and all people are deserving of them. The power that the Chinese government tries to prevent their citizens from attaining is the very power that Liu Xiaobo worked his whole life to provide the Chinese people through fighting for their rights. The very fact that Chinese citizens do not know his name is proof that his activism was needed. The very fact that the Chinese government is afraid of his legacy is proof of his influence. Although his citizens may not know it now, his activism provided a foundation for their future freedoms, as activists like him strive to continue Liu’s work where he left off.
As Hu Jia, another prominent Chinese human rights activist said, “three-quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, his grave is now everywhere,” his legacy is now spreading all over the world.
Featured Image: This image was originally posted to Flickr by Nancy Pelosi. This image has been licensed for fair use under the Creative Commons license – Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). No changes were made.