Chinese Dissident And Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo Dies At 61

Jul 13, 2017
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And we have news this morning of the death of a Chinese dissident. His name was Liu Xiaobo. He was imprisoned for subversion, which is the way China's government referred to his calls for an end to one-party Communist rule. He was on medical parole but prevented from leaving the country when he died of liver cancer at the age of 61. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has followed his career for years, and he's on the line from Beijing.

Anthony, how did Liu Xiaobo rise to prominence?

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Well, he got his start, Steve, as a university lecturer and a literary critic in the 1980s. And he was a fierce critic. He would take down anyone, including people from his own camp, which was basically liberal intellectuals. He was a key figure in the 1989 pro-democracy protests, whose hunger striking and calls for democracy basically gave the movement a sort of Gandhian flavor.

Then, in 2008, he helped draft a key document called Charter 08 which, as you said, called for an end to one-party rule and many other democratic reforms. But starting in 1989, he was - his name was erased from the media, and he was barred from publishing. And that's why people really did not know who he was.

INSKEEP: Oh, now, you say 1989. Of course, we're talking about the Tiananmen Square uprising that ended up with massive killings by the government.

KUHN: Exactly.

INSKEEP: But I'm really interested in this document that you mentioned because I've read about it before. I've heard about it, but I gather that most Chinese have not - this document calling for a freer China. If he was not so well-known, what made him seem so dangerous to the government?

KUHN: Well, that document, I think, was really a factor. This document said, in the most lucid way to the Communist Party, you have failed to deliver the modern and democratic nation that you promised to in 1949, so it's time for you to give up your monopoly of political power and time to hold competitive elections. And really, he became a standard bearer for the movement, and that's why they felt they couldn't let him out.

INSKEEP: Did he get imprisoned specifically for this document? Or, in accusing him of subversion, did the Chinese government come up with some other crime, in effect?

KUHN: It was clear that it was for this document, for this movement which was signed by thousands of people. But he said, I'm going to take the rap for it. And in the end, he was the only one who did serious jail time.

INSKEEP: Did he ever express, that you heard, why it was that he felt so strongly that he was willing to court trouble with the government for year after year after year?

KUHN: Commitment and conviction. He had very strongly held views. He was a very eloquent writer. And, you know, he stuck to his guns. He was a tough guy to the very end.

INSKEEP: How did authorities respond to his illness in recent months?

KUHN: Well, there was a political tug of war over this man in his late - his final days. People asked, why was he not diagnosed earlier with late-stage - until May - until the end of May when he was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer? Why did the government not make the humanitarian gesture to allow him to seek medical treatment overseas, as he and his family wanted? But, you know, China argued that he was a common criminal. They never thought he should have gotten the Nobel Peace Prize, and it was nobody's business but China's where he was treated.

And I think some state media also made it fairly clear that the government did not want to give him any more chances to speak out against it. And so he died in this hospital under very tight security. His family members were basically held incommunicado. And the government said, you know, we have made humanitarian gestures by allowing foreign doctors to come and see him. But they just would not let him go.

INSKEEP: Do you think that most Chinese today have any idea that this is a man who won the Nobel Prize?

KUHN: Most people do not know. You ask them, and they say, who? He's still largely unknown in his own country.

INSKEEP: Anthony, thanks very much, as always.

KUHN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing reporting on the death of Liu Xiaobo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.