Liu Xiaobo was a singular, unhoused and paradoxical figure in every respect. He is the first post-World War Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in custody. The Chinese state, whose authoritarianism he so powerfully challenged turned out to be more steely and adept in weathering the storms of dissidence and protest that have ultimately cracked so many other authoritarianisms. Yet in its symbolism, his Nobel Prize ceremony did powerfully mark a moment that exposed China’s strange vulnerability.
China’s power and footprint on the world is immense. Nineteen countries boycotted the ceremony. But the list of those 19 authoritarian countries underscored the gap between China’s power and material success on the one hand and its global normative status on the other. This is only speculation. But it is perhaps the consciousness of this gap that the Nobel ceremony highlighted that in part is fuelling a new wave of official Chinese nationalism.
Liu Xiaobo’s political career, from participation in the June 1989 protest to the drafting of Charter 08, has been well documented. He remained, first and foremost, an intellectual. As Perry Link argues, the one trait he most embodied was candour, including about himself. That was a vocation he never betrayed. The Chinese regime has tolerated a number of critical intellectuals. In many ways, Liu Xiaobo was a voice of pacifism and moderation. But the combination of radicalism in ends and moderation in means proves far more detrimental to regimes.
As an intellectual he had crossed several lines simultaneously. He advocated liberal rights. He questioned the monopoly of power the Chinese Communist party exercised. Through his work on Charter 08, he was seen as part of an organised political movement to overthrow party rule. And perhaps no less significantly, he repudiated almost every element of Chinese nationalism. His early work, which he, then, in a characteristic piece of self-criticism, repudiated, was very much marked by a tendency to use the West as a yardstick to critique China, including its past. He was consistently severe even on other Chinese dissidents for being wedded to nationalism. It was perhaps too much to expect a dissident to survive the repudiation of party, apolitical critique and nationalism simultaneously.
Scholars of Chinese politics can comment more on his role in the June movement and the subsequent trajectory of Chinese politics. But the fascination with his writings comes from a strange and unexpected sense of tragedy that marks his sensibility. Schiller had once described the Greek tragic hero as one who proves his freedom in the very loss of it. The overwhelming impression you get from Liu Xiaobo’s career is of a figure almost daring authorities to curb his freedom, as if to prove that no power, or no fate, was powerful enough to take freedom away. He is a deeply interesting thinker, both in his analysis of post-revolutionary Chinese politics, but also as a profound cultural critic. Unlike so many would-be emancipators, there is not a trace of blinkered utopianism about human nature in his thinking. His liberalism was not founded on rosy assumptions about mankind or the state of the world, it was not founded on the safety of putting aside fundamental questions.
This is very evident in the moving and revealing epilogue he wrote to his book Chinese Politics and China’s Modern Intellectuals. That epilogue is of interest for a number of reasons: His self-criticism over the way in which he uncritically embraced the West as a yardstick for China; his abiding belief in universalism, but of a much deeper and alternative kind than the West currently had to offer, his critique of the spiritual aridity of a lot of modern life, his critique of nationalism. He has a striking passage there. “The disappearing awareness of ‘original sin’ has left human life weightless and has led to another fall for humanity, leaving us unlikely to ever recover from the original fall of Adam and Eve.” Even though in that essay he uses Christian language, arguing that “as God has been secularised human civilisation has been in descent,” his general yearning for transcendence remained powerful.
This is not a liberalism founded on easy assumptions about human nature. In an interview, he once said, “I’m pessimistic about mankind in general, but my pessimism does not allow for escape. Even though I might be faced with nothing but a series of tragedies, I will still struggle, still show my opposition. This is why I like Nietzsche and dislike Schopenhauer.”
In his writings, he comes across as a Nietzschean figure in many respects. His sense of the intellectual was of an untimely figure, whose function was to “enunciate thoughts that are ahead of their time.” His sense of responsibility was quite stern: One had to take responsibility for one’s own fate, there was no point in blaming anyone else. A politics that rises above resentment, a politics without enemies and without hatred, was possible only if we stopped blaming others for our fate; that act of blaming itself betrayed our freedom. One had to embrace life in its totality and overcome it. He was a staunch defender of individuality and had deep-seated suspicion of any trace of conformity, or being absorbed in a larger mass. He was also preoccupied with being original, in a way he felt he had not been. His stringent cultural criticism had one abiding theme: He longed for the Chinese to acquire the ability to what he called “self-create.”
If the epilogue mentioned above is one short essay to read, his Nobel speech is another. It is remarkable for the moment where he thanks his wife Liu Xia, and on the love weighed down by such heavy political circumstances. But it also pointedly laid out a message for all regimes, not just China. “Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.”
In the nascent post-cultural revolution developments in China, Liu Xiaobo saw a lot of hope. But he never lost the sense that he was untimely. Xi Jinping’s clampdown has a grip on China. But Liu Xiabo knew that while politicians may write history, dissidents, poets and thinkers speak to eternity.