Who is Liu Xiaobo? | Nobel Laureate who died in Chinese custody

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Liu Xiaobo has died in Chinese custody at the age of 61.

His death has earned China worldwide criticism and the country has chosen silence on the matter, something the BBC describes as “a virtual media blackout”.

“I hate this government. How can a regime treat a person like Liu Xiaobo like this? 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”, said Chinese author, activist and friend of Liu, Tienchi Martin-Liao.

On 8 October, 2010, Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights”. At the ceremony of his award presentation in Oslo Norway, Xiaobo’s assigned chair was empty as he was serving an 11-year jail term in his own country “for inciting subversion of state power”.

Liu Xiaobo was a celebrated activist in other parts of the world and a dissident in China. He protested peacefully against the one-party rule in China and over time became an enemy of the state.

It was in May 1989 Xiaobo rose to international prominence when he left his job as a visiting scholar in Columbia University for Beijing to join thousands of students in a protest in Tianenmen Square. He and three other friends spearheaded a 72-hour hunger strike as they fought for democracy and in June, the Chinese government under Xi Jinping employed the military in a clampdown on protesters that led to the death of thousands. It is reported that rifles were fired and armoured vehicle were driven into crowds in the Square. Washington Post writes that, “Mr. Liu and his fellow hunger-strikers, fearing a bloodbath in the square, acted as negotiators between military forces and the remaining demonstrators.”

Second right: Liu with other demonstrators at the Tianenmen Square, Beijing in 1989. Image courtesy: The Guardian UK

Although he was able to secure a peaceful end to the protests, Xiaobo was still arrested by the Chinese authorities and was locked behind bars for 21 months on charges of “counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement”, according to a BBC article. The consequence of his arrest was a ban on his publishing rights in China. He was also to forbidden to give public speeches.

Xiaobo was released in 1991 but was subsequently rearrested in 1996 and handed a three-year jail term in a labor camp for campaigning for members of the Tianenmen movement who were still held in custody.

His last arrest was as a result of a document he drafted alongside other intellectuals – the Charter 08 was a pro-democracy manifesto that called for “the democratization of Chinese politics through the establishment of a new constitution, greater freedom of expression, an independent judiciary and an end to one-party rule”.

The document drew widespread support and the Chinese government being threatened by its mere existence removed it from the internet and arrested Xiaobo hours before it was to be released. On 25 December, 2009 and after spending a whole year in detention, Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in jail. He never made it out of jail.

He was diagnosed of “terminal liver cancer” in June 2017 and despite worldwide calls for him to be moved to Germany or the United States for treatment, the Chinese government refused him the opportunity claiming that he was “too ill to travel”, according to the BBC.

Liu Xiaobbo was born on 28 December 1955 and has a masters degree in Chinese literature from Beijing Normal University where he also earned his PhD years later. He married poet and photographer, Liu Xia in 1996 while in the labor camp where he was held prisoner. Xia was also held under home arrest under state surveillance for many years. She is said to be suffering from depression following long years of isolation.


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