Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Pick

China's most famous dissident never wanted the honor.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

On June 6, 1989, two days after he urged students to leave Tiananmen Square, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who had flown back from Columbia University to join the protests, was arrested. As he was biking home from work, a minivan sped around the corner. A few large men got out, grabbed his arms, closed his mouth, covered his eyes, and tossed him into the van. "Because it was so sudden — about 15 minutes, I was shaking all over," he later said.

On June 24, Beijing Daily, a Chinese state-owned newspaper, published a long article entitled "Seize the Evil Backstage Manipulator Liu Xiaobo," attaching many crimes to his name. That article, and Liu’s arrest for his activities in Tiananmen Square, received international attention. Around the same time, a group of Norwegian intellectuals wrote a letter to the Nobel Committee entitled "Recommendation on Awarding Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Prize." Fearing Liu might be sentenced to death (he ended up serving a few years), they thought international attention could help him. But Liu never actively chased the prize, saying that the honor should instead go to the souls of those who died on June 4.

Liu thought the most qualified person to win the prize was Ding Zilin, a retired professor of philosophy at People’s University in Beijing who founded the advocacy organization "Tiananmen Mothers" after her son was murdered in the square. Ding built a group of nearly 200 women who had lost sons or daughters on June 4. They’d put forth statements calling for the Communist Party to revise its verdict and publically discuss Tiananmen Square. In January 2002, Liu wrote an essay announcing his "wholehearted support" of the Tiananmen Mothers for the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize. Besides their bravery and benevolence, Liu also cited their "witnessing the massacre on June 4, testifying to the spirit of this society, witnessing the Chinese Communist Party’s past 20 years of all sorts of counter-historical perversities."

Liu believed that to improve China’s human rights situation, and for China to successfully democratize, the events of June 4 could not be swept under the rug. "Awarding the Nobel Prize to Tiananmen Mothers Activists is the biggest support the international community can give for China’s struggle for human rights, freedom, and democracy" he wrote in the same essay. That year he even organized a group of eight Chinese scholars to write in support of the Tiananmen Mothers for the prize, because of their "search for justice and cries for peace" and for Ding’s bravery in publicizing the massacre to the international media. In 2006, the board of the Independent Chinese PEN Center voted to accept Liu’s proposal to award that year’s "Independent Writing Award" to Ding, who has written extensively about her family’s experience on June 4.

In December 2008, after Ding’s husband fell ill, Liu and his wife Liu Xia went to the hospital and sat by Ding’s husband bedside. There, Liu told Ding that he was almost finished with his work surrounding Charter 8, his manifesto modeled after a similar document published in Communist Czechoslovakia in the 1970s, and that he was now working with a group of international sinologists to nominate Tiananmen Mothers for the Nobel Prize. He thought that nominating them for the next year’s prize was the most important thing he could do to commemorate the 20th anniversary of June 4. The next day, Liu was detained; he was formally arrested six months later.

On Christmas Day 2009, Liu was sentenced to 11 years for subversion. Hu Ping, a political theorist who lives in New York, wrote in a 2010 essay published on overseas dissident websites that "a few days before Liu was arrested he Skyped me and expressly pleaded with me … to continue struggling for the Nobel Prize for the Tiananmen Mothers."

On Oct. 8, 2010, Liu won the Nobel Peace Prize, but it came 21 years too late. Although the Chinese Communist Party’s army massacred more than 1,000 innocents in June 1989, and China’s democracy movement — which came to an untimely end — received the whole world’s attention and sympathy, the Nobel Committee couldn’t find someone deserving of receiving the prize among the Han Chinese community. So that year, they awarded the prize to the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, instead.

In May 2011, before the 22nd anniversary of June 4, the Tiananmen Mothers announced that the government had mentioned the issue of compensation for their family members’ deaths, but offered neither an apology nor the "judicial investigations" the group wanted.

Once he gets out of prison, what should Liu do with his prize? If China can make a smooth transition to democracy, Liu might become a figure like Elie Wiesel, who worked to build a memorial to the Holocaust. Liu could spend the second half of his life honoring the memory of those massacred by the Communist Party — perhaps he could even get Mao Zedong’s corpse removed from Tiananmen Square and put the memorial there. Liu could also focus his research and writing around communist massacres and possibly even teach at a university like his alma mater, Beijing Normal. Or he could imitate Taiwanese democratic pioneer Lin Yi-hsiung, who turned his own house into a Taiwanese memorial on democracy and worked as a guide for visiting elementary and middle school students. Liu would like this kind of work very much.

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