Liu Xiaobo: His Empty Chair

When Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace prize by the Norwegian Nobel committee in 2010 for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”, he was represented at the ceremony by an empty chair (now a symbol of mourning, hope, and remembrance). The activist was once again in jail, serving an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” when playing a role in Charter 08.


Who was Liu Xiaobo?

Liu Xiaobo was a Chinese literary critic, writer, poet, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who called for political reforms and was involved in campaigns to end Communist single-party rule

After studying literature and philosophy and receiving a PhD from Beijing Normal University, he took part in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests and movements, which eventually came to a bloody end on June 4 with troops firing on the protesters. Liu was later named one of the “four junzis of Tiananmen Square” for negotiating with troops, allowing the lives of hundreds of protesters to be spared.

For this (and for “counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement) he was arrested, and once again rearrested and sentenced a few years later to a labor camp for campaigning for imprisoned activists in the Tiananmen movement.

However, his longest prison sentence came in 2008 when he and a group of people drafted the manifesto Charter 08, which called for reforms in China (including a new constitution and form of democracy, and respect for human rights). Two days before the manifesto was published, Liu Xiaobo was arrested and jailed for 11 years.

While in jail, Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace prize, and was described as the “foremost symbol” of the struggle for human rights in China. However, in China’s eyes, he was a “prisoner who confronted authorities and was rejected by mainstream Chinese society”.

In June 2017, Liu was given a medical parole after being diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. The Chinese government announced that in his type of late-stage cancer, no radiation, chemotherapy, or surgery would work and that he was too sick to be transported overseas. 

This news sparked an outrage within Liu’s supporters, who began to question whether Liu had received adequate care or whether the government had deliberately allowed him to wither in prison.

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On July 13, 2017, Liu Xiaobo died at the age of 61.

My take on this event:

Liu Xiaobo was an admirable and brave man, fighting for what he believed in. However, just as how every playground has its rules, Liu was the rule breaker – not to purposely stir up trouble, but because he simply thought it was right. And just how every rule book has its repercussions,  Liu was detained for breaking the norms. Even the greatest men are not invincible.

With the death of Liu Xiaobo, millions of people are mourning, starting a movement on social media and posting pictures of memorials of empty chairs and flowers – even users in mainland China, showing that despite the censors, the people are aware of who Liu was, and what he stood for.

I look forward to [the day]…where all political views will spread out under the sun for people to choose from, where every citizen can state political views without fear…I hope that I will be the last victim of China’s endless literary inquisitions and that from now on no one will be incriminated because of speech. 

– Liu Xiaobo

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