China’s Empty Nobel Chair

Liu Xiaobo dies in Beijing’s custody, an example to the world.


Pro-democracy activists mourn the death of Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, outside China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, July 13.
Pro-democracy activists mourn the death of Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, outside China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, July 13. PHOTO: BOBBY YIP/REUTERS

Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel laureate, died on Thursday, only weeks after he was moved to hospital from a prison cell. The Chinese government bears responsibility for failing to competently diagnose and treat his liver cancer. To Beijing’s shame, the only other Peace Prize winner to die in custody was Carl von Ossietzky, a prisoner of Nazi Germany who won in 1935 and died in 1938.

Liu played a pivotal role in the 1989 student protests in Tiananmen Square, helping to negotiate the peaceful departure of the last students to occupy the square. He kept the spirit of that movement alive in 2008 when he helped to write Charter 08, a democracy manifesto. Shortly thereafter he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for “subversion.”

Opinion Journal: Liu Xiaobo, Chinese Hero
Main Street Columnist Bill McGurn on the life and death of the Nobel Laureate, and what it portends for China’s future. Photo Credit: Getty Images.

China’s rulers have worked hard to make sure their citizens learned little about Liu’s ideas. That fear of one man’s courage testifies to the illegitimacy of their power. Liu could have played an important role in China’s transition to democracy, but his example will serve as an inspiration to future generations.

Beijing has used the fruits of economic reforms started by Deng Xiaoping in 1979 to prolong authoritarian rule far longer than most thought possible. But its obsession with social control is hampering further moves toward a free-market economy. The resulting tensions are building and increase the risk of instability. 

At the Nobel prize ceremony in 2010, Liu was represented by an empty chair. His death is a reminder of the world’s obligation to keep attention on China’s rights abuses. Without political reform, China will continue to use its growing economic and military clout to spread its authoritarian model. Pressuring Beijing to free the imprisoned human-rights lawyers who have taken up Liu’s freedom fight would serve the interest of China’s people, as well as the rules-based international order that its undemocratic government seeks to subvert.

Appeared in the July 14, 2017, print edition.

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