Liu: A champion for political change with a heart of gold MARK MacKINNON BEIJING— From Saturday's Globe and Mail
As his name was being read out in Oslo as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo was likely in the cell he shares with five others in a prison in northeastern China. Perhaps he was reading his favourite book: Franz Kafka’s The Castle, the tale of one man’s lonely fight against a faceless and dictatorial bureaucracy.
Reading and writing letters to his wife and fellow dissident, Liu Xia, have occupied the largest chunk of Mr. Liu’s life since he began on Dec. 25, 2009, the 11-year prison sentence that was the result of his latest attempt to challenge China’s Communist Party rulers.
The books his wife is allowed to bring him must be some comfort to the former literary critic, who has emerged as the leading protagonist in the long struggle to bring about political change in this country.
That the 54-year-old native of Jilin province is now the face of China’s democracy movement says as much about the scattered state of the country’s political opposition as it does about Mr. Liu’s perseverance and dedication to his principles.
Mr. Liu’s first brush with fame, and the fickleness of Chinese law, came in 1989, when he returned from a lecture tour in the United States to join the swelling pro-democracy protests on Tiananmen Square.
The young professor joined hunger strikers and became a trusted adviser of the movement’s student leaders, though he also railed publicly against their growing intransigence in the showdown with the authorities. “To replace a military dictatorship with a student dictatorship would hardly be a victory; it would be a failure, a tragic failure,” he warned days ahead of the military crackdown.
As the troops and tanks moved in on the night of June 3, 1989, Mr. Liu initially wanted the demonstrators to hold their ground, and rallied thousands of students to the base of the Monument of People’s Heroes, a stone pillar in the centre of Tiananmen Square. But as the prospect of bloodshed drew nearer, he changed his mind and argued in favour of a peaceful withdrawal.
He won the day – at one point helping destroy a machine gun that one of the protesters had brought to the square to use against the army – and was credited by some with saving many lives.
(Some Chinese dissidents argued this week against Mr. Liu’s Nobel Peace Prize, accusing him of being too “soft” on the Communist Party, an accusation that dates back to divisions over tactics on Tiananmen Square. Pro-government critics, meanwhile, have long suggested he’s unpatriotic, highlighting a 1988 remark he made suggesting that mainland China would need “300 years of colonialism” to catch up with Hong Kong.)
In the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown, Mr. Liu was fingered as one of the protest leaders and arrested after a minivan rammed him while he was riding his bicycle. He was detained 20 months in a maximum-security prison before being released without charge after signing a “letter of repentance.”