Liu Xiaobo: Keeping a voice

9 minutes to read
Odile Heynders


Nobel laureate and dissident writer Liu Xiaobo died on 13 July in a Chinese hospital. He was the courageous voice of modernization and democracy in China. But his voice was silenced by the government and not heard by most of the Chinese people. Xiaobo dedicated the Nobel prize to ‘the martyrs of Tiananmen square’. His poetry expresses his courage and conviction and will keep his voice alive.


The empty chair

Dissident writer Liu Xiaobo (b. 1955), poet, scholar and activist, can be considered a representative of M. Foucault’s parrhesiastes[1] since as a writer he took up his pen to criticize the government. In 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. At that time, however, he was in prison, serving an eleven-year sentence for ‘incitement of subversion’ (Link et al., XIII)[2]. Even his wife was not allowed by the Chinese government to travel to Oslo for the Award ceremony. During the formality an empty chair on the stage was the proof that an independent intellectual was (and is) not free in China to say what he thinks he has to say. A brief autobiographical description by Liu himself sketches the background and context of his intellectual career:

June 1989 has been the major turning point in my life (…) until  June 1989, I had an academic career and it was flourishing. I was part of the class of 1977, the first group of students to enter university after the national entrance examinations were reinstated in the post-Mao era. After college I went on to M.A. and PhD degrees and then was offered a teaching position at my alma mater, Beijing Normal University, where my teaching was well received by students. Beyond the classroom, my books and articles provoked quite a bit of comment, and by the end of the 1980s I had become a ‘public intellectual’. I received invitations to give talks all around our country as well as invitations to Europe and America as visiting scholar. Through all of this my essential demands upon myself were only that, both as a person and as a writer, I be honest and responsible, and that I live in dignity’ (Xiabo, 2012, 321).

Liu organized a hunger strike that began on June 2, 1989, two days before the Tiananmen massacre. He was arrested four days later, and sent to prison for eighteen months, after which he returned home and started writing critical essays on the political circumstances in China. In 1996 he was arrested again, due to his remarks on the sensitive topic of Taiwan’s relations with China. After three years in a re-education camp he was released. In 2008 he joined friends who had been working on the Charta 08 manifesto, inspired by Czechoslovakia’s Charta 77 that was signed by Vaclav Havel, Jan Patocka and other dissidents. Due to this document and to six other articles posted on the Internet in which the Communist Party rule was criticized, Liu was formally arrested in 2009 and charged with ‘subversion of state power’ (Béja 16-17).

No Enemies, no Hatred

We know about Liu and his standpoints, since his texts are published in the West. A collection of essays and poems first appeared in Germany (2011) and later in the US, entitled No Enemies, no Hatred. Vaclav Havel, the renowned dissident writer and later president of Czechoslovakia, wrote a brief introduction, as such affirming Liu’s cultural authority. Havel compares the situation in the former Eastern Europe with that in China:

Charter 08 addresses a political milieu that is very different from Czechoslovakia in the 1970s. In its quest for economic growth, China has embraced some features far removed from traditional Communism. Especially for young, urban, educated white-collar workers, China can seem like a post-Communist country. And yet, China’s Communist Party still has lines that cannot be crossed. In spearheading the creation of Charta 08, Liu Xiaobo crossed the starkest line of all: Do not challenge the Communist Party’s monopoly on political power, and do not suggest that China’s problems – including widespread corruption, labor unrest, and rampant environmental degradation – might be connected to the lack of progress on political reform. And for making that very connection in an all too public way, Liu got more than a decade in prison (Link x-xi).

No Enemies, No Hatred made Liu more famous in the United States and Europe than in China, where he is not allowed to publish his work and where articles mentioning his name are blocked on the Internet. The consequence of this is that Liu has more readers in the West. Paradoxically, the rulers of the State by obliterating his statements from all public media qualify these statements as subversive and thus powerful. Liu has become a symbol for the fight for human rights in China, a symbol cultivated by the Norwegian Nobel committee, stressing that ‘it is normal that big powers should be under criticism’ (Willy Wo-Lap Lam, 253). Because of his advocacy of non-violence, and even of non-hatred towards his jailers, Liu has been compared to Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi.


Writer in context

We can observe Liu within different social and cultural contexts: the first being mainland China with the authoritarian CCP trying to silence him, and the second being the Western world with publishing possibilities and economic interests in the book of a political activist. The West in addition affirms an ethical concern with the freedom of speech. In a video made by the American PEN organization Liu declares that ‘we will maintain the spirit of the freedom of writing in the field of literature, criticism and editing’ and he makes an appeal to his colleagues in free countries to keep an eye on Chinese writers.

The irony is that Liu would not have been silenced by the Chinese government, if he did not have cultural authority and renown in the West.

Liu has achieved cultural authority, since he both studied in China and abroad, and travelled to universities all over the globe as visiting scholar. His first performance as public intellectual was in the 1980s, when because of his radicalism he became known as the ‘black horse’ in the literary scene, opposing fellow writers who were not critical enough to the State. He considered critical thinking as the essence of the intellectual, and accused his colleagues of being obsessed with a Nobel Complex or an Oscar complex (Béja, 18). 

The irony is that Liu would not have been silenced by the Chinese government, if he did not have cultural authority and renown in the West. Someone without these is obviously less harmful as a public speaker critiquing the government. Chinese officials do not allow Liu to spread his texts, so most essays have been written ‘at home in Beijing’ and were later published in Hong Kong and in the US and Europe. Because of his imprisonments there are not many images and videos on Liu’s performances, but the one made by the American Pen organization does stylize him as typical intellectual: he is sitting in front of bookshelves, and speaks quietly and seriously. The bespectacled, chain-smoking intellectual has ‘the image of a Mr. Clean’ not involved in corruption or money scandals (Willy Wo-Lap Lam, 252).

Positioning the author in context, we have to take note of his inner circle as well, e.g. his marriage to his second wife, the poet Liu Xia, who supports him and has taken care of the distribution of his essays and poems. But this, so it seems, has repercussions for the family as a whole; in August 2013 her brother Liu Hui was indicted on ‘fraud charges’, and convicted to serve an eleven-year sentence. Since January 2014, Liu Xia is in difficult circumstances suffering from physical problems and depression, but not allowed to go to hospital for treatment.

Texts, ideas and poem

In his texts, Liu appears as a rational writer. When analyzing the rhetoric of the essays, we can observe that the essays are informative, systematic and written without pathos and irony. They cover topics such as the Olympics in China in 2008, discussing how the self-fabrication of China promoted by the Party affirms that China is ‘prosperous, stable, and headed for an age of great peace’, though from the internet and foreign news sources ‘we know that more and more major conflicts (…) have been breaking out between citizens and officials’ (Xiaobo 2012, 108). Another topic discussed is the insufficient measures taken to investigate the child slavery in China’s brick factories in 2007. Only low level officials were punished for the incompetence in dealing with the rescue of the missing children in Henan Province. Liu observes that the main reason why officials at all levels are ‘coldhearted and irresponsible’ is that they are appointed within a system in which public power is monopolized in the hands of a private group, the CCP (Xiaobo 2012, 100). The power is taken out of the hands of the people. After the disasters happen, ‘the Party manipulates the media to portray the villains as the saviors, bad government as good government, and the cleanup of losses as political achievements’ (Xiaobo 2012, 101).

The most thought provoking essay is entitled ‘The erotic carnival in recent Chinese history’, and was written in 2004. It is a statement about the transformation of Chinese culture and society since the 1990s due to the grown of a hedonistic, superficial and vulgar consumer culture reinforcing the dictatorial political order. Liu methodically examines how consumerism, eroticism and nationalism are intermingled and how the Party began ‘to rely on the trappings of pop culture to bring its messages to audiences’ (Xiaobo 2012, 155). Though the ‘New Left’ blames marketization and globalization for China’s polarization of wealth and its mind-boggling corruption, this explanation diverts attention from deeper causes in China’s system itself. Political shamelessness lies at the roots of sexual shamelessness. Nationalist extremists borrow sexual language to express hate. Liu’s conclusion is that ‘China has transitioned from politics-are-everything in the Mao era to money-is-everything in the post-Mao years’ (Xiaobo, 2012, 173) The amorality of the Mao years has turned into moral rot in contemporary China.

Liu underscores the endeavor of the intellectual by making serious critical and systematic analyses of China’s social and moral state. Even though his focus is on China’s domestic affairs, the effect of his messages is global. Paradoxically, international writers and opinion-makers (e.g. Salman Rusdie, Umberto Eco, Margaret Atwood) protested most fiercely to his show-trial in December 2009. His arrest was almost immediately followed by the nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 (Willy Wo-Lap Lam, 255). But Beijing does not accept foreign intervention, and the CCP leadership has even hardened since then in regard to migration and other social issues. The age-old practice of shangfang, that is lower class citizens with grievances presenting petitions to provincial capitals and Beijing, has been obstructed since 2008. The CCP authorities are not listening to the voices of the people and certainly not to those of ‘Westernized’ intellectuals.

It is in a poem from 1997, that Liu has described this powerless position of the intellectual. I quote the first stanza’s from ‘Van Gogh and You’, dedicated to Xiao Xia:

Your penmanship puts me to shame

in your letters (each stroke a paragon)

who’d catch the hint of despair?

at the calluses where you grasp the pen

Van Gogh’s sunflowers bloom


How precious that empty chair!

not for reading and writing, but for remembering

each shift of the shoulders calls up another time

you endure the raids with equanimity

and savor Van Gogh’s images alone (Link, 148)

The poem addresses one who has to accept that the chair is empty, someone who has to endure the ‘raids with equanimity’ and the ‘round-the-clock surveillance’. Van Gogh as the solitary artist – as the artist of the empty chair: he painted them - is a symbol of one’s loneliness at home. The poem, written in 1997, shows that the lyrical voice is aware of the consequences of writing and speaking critically and ‘freely’. It is this poem that makes the image of the empty chair in Oslo in 2010 even more grieving.



Béja Jean-Philippe, Fu Hualing, and Eva Pils (2012), Liu Xiaobo, Charter 08, and the Challenges of Political Reform in China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Uniersity Press.

Foucault, Michel (2005) The hermeneutics of the subject, Lectures at the College de France 1981-1982, Edited by Frédéric Gros, Translated by Graham Burchell. New York: Picador.

Lam, Willy Wo-Lap (2012), The Politics of Liu Xiaobo’s Trial. In: Jan-Philippe Béja et al., Liu Xiaobo, Charter 08, and the Challenges of Political Reform in China. Hong Kong: Hong Kong Uniersity Press, pp. 251-271.

Xiaobo, Liu (2012), No Enemies, No hatred. Selected Essays and Poems. Edited by Perry Link, Tienchi Martin-Liao, and Liu Xia, With a Foreword by Vaclav Havel. Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Xiaobo, Liu (2012), June Fourth Elegies, Translated form the Chinese by Jeffrey Yang, Foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, London: Jonathan Cape.



[1] Parrhesia implies speaking freely: the one who uses parrhesia, the parrhesiastes, is someone who says everything he has in mind: he does not hide anything, but opens his heart and mind completely to other people through his discourse. See: M. Foucault, The hermeneutics of the subject, Lectures at the College de France 1981-1982.

[2] Liu Xiaobo, No Enemies, No hatred. Selected Essays and Poems. Edited by Perry Link, Tienchi Martin-Liao, and Liu Xia, With a Foreword by Vaclav Havel. Cambridge MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012.