For gentlemen of purpose and men of benevolence, while it is inconceivable that they should seek to stay alive at the expense of benevolence, it may happen that they have to accept death in order to have benevolence accomplished. —Confucius, Analects
In 1898, some of China’s most brilliant minds allied themselves with the Emperor Guangxu, a young ruler who was trying to assert himself by forcing through reforms to open up China’s political, economic, and educational systems. But opponents quickly struck back, deposing the emperor and causing his advisors to flee for their lives.
One, however, stayed put. He was Tan Sitong, a young scholar from a far-off corner of the empire. Tan knew that remaining in Beijing meant death, but hoped that his execution might shock his fellow citizens awake.
It wasn’t a modest decision. Tan was one of the most provocative essayists of his generation. He had published an influential book decrying the effects of absolutism. He had founded schools and newspapers, and advised other political figures on how to change the system. There was every justification for him to save his own skin so he could contribute to future battles. But these arguments also made Tan realize how valuable it was that he remain in the imperial capital: facing death proudly, at the hands of those resisting reforms, could make a difference; people might pay attention to China’s plight.
So as his friends boarded ships to Japan or fled to the provinces, Tan went to a small hotel in Beijing and waited for the imperial troops. They soon arrived and quickly condemned him to death in the inevitable show trial that followed. The trial itself was interrupted only by an order from above to get on with it: Tan was to be executed immediately.
Before his decapitation at Beijing’s Caishikou execution grounds, however, Tan was able to utter what today are some of the most famous words in China’s century-and-a-half effort to form a modern, pluralistic state: “I wanted to kill the robbers, but lacked the strength to transform the world. This is the place where I should die. Rejoice, rejoice!”
I couldn’t help but think of Tan these past few days as China’s best-known democracy activist, Liu Xiaobo, lay dying of liver cancer in a hospital prison. Death comes to all people and cancer is not the same as an executioner’s sword. But the deaths of the two seemed somehow to connect across the hundred and nineteen years that separate their fates. Like Tan, Liu threw his weight behind a cause that in its immediate aftermath seemed hopeless—in Liu’s case, the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. But with time, history vindicated Tan; I wonder if it will do the same for Liu.
When the Tiananmen protests erupted, Liu was abroad but chose to return. After the protesters were bloodily suppressed, many of the Tiananmen leaders who could left the country; Liu, too, after a brief stint in prison, had opportunities to leave. But like Tan Sitong, he chose to stay in China, where he mattered most. Even after a second, harsher stint in jail, Liu was determined to remain and keep pushing for basic political rights. He was risking not the immediate arrival of soldiers, but the inevitable and life-threatening imprisonment that befalls all people who challenge state power in China today.
This was not an active decision to die, but a willingness to do so.
The perversion was that as his punishments grew even his ideas became more nuanced and moderate. His only major biographer, the exiled essayist Yu Jie, writes that Liu began life as a typical product of the Mao era: prone to extreme, romantic positions—a “gangster” enamored with grand gestures and outrageously rude statements. In a way, the early Liu was like Tan Sitong, hoping to shock China awake.
But Liu’s rigorous self-reflection changed his views and actions. Especially in the two decades that followed Tiananmen, he distilled his brazenness to what Yu calls “truthfulness, directness, and the courage to blaze new trails.”
This didn’t mean shunning protests or direct action, but prioritizing the more realistic and—even though Liu often provocatively said he was in favor of complete westernization—very Confucian idea of promoting social change through one’s own life and actions. He said Chinese should study “the non-democratic way we live,” and “consciously attempt to put democratic ideals into practice in our own personal relationships (between teachers and students, fathers and sons, husbands and wives, and between friends).”
Liu’s moderation culminated in Charter 08, a petition for political change that relied heavily on rights already enshrined in China’s constitution and in internationally recognized UN treaties. He helped draft Charter 08’s careful language, and he did much to persuade others to sign it. As a result, in 2009 he was sentenced to eleven years for “subversion of state power.”
This wasn’t the same as Tan’s death sentence but it marked the end of Liu’s freedom—and above all, for Liu, of his ability to speak out. At the time, Liu was fifty-four and it was conceivable that he could have been released at age sixty-five to live another decade or two. But even if he had left prison alive in 2020, it would have almost certainly been to permanent house arrest and removal from public life—no Internet, no telephone, no visitors—much the way his wife, the poet Liu Xia, has been made to disappear or the reformist Party secretary Zhao Ziyang vanished from public life for years until he finally died of old age.
But Chinese prisons are harsh, and house arrest was not to be his fate.
The exact sequence of events may never be understood. Unlike East Germany’s Stasi, China’s state security apparatus is unlikely to implode suddenly and leave us a trove of information that will make clear exactly who knew what when. But it is clear that Liu fell victim to circumstances that strongly suggest government malfeasance.
According to a friend of Liu’s who has been in regular touch with the family over the years, Liu’s family was told he had cancer in early June. But this was only made public on June 26. I suspect what happened was that authorities suddenly realized that Liu was close to death and how bad it would look if he died in jail—immediately, people began pointing out that, previously, the only Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in state custody was the German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who died in a Nazi jail three years after winning the 1935 prize.
And so Liu’s captors quickly sent him to a secure hospital—and decided it would be in their interest to make this public, issuing the misleadingly benevolent statement that it was granting Liu “medical parole” (when he fact he was simply under guard in a cancer ward).
Does this sequence of events imply neglect? Authorities have gone to great lengths to rebut these allegations. They took the unprecedented step of issuing fairly regular health bulletins about his condition, and of allowing foreign doctors to visit Liu. One of their favorite pit-bull media outlets aimed at foreign audiences, The Global Times, also wrote several articles attacking Liu and blaming him for his illness.
One, published two days after his condition became public, set the nervous and accusatory tone. The article implied that Liu would not be allowed to seek treatment abroad. The reasons given were purely political: if allowed abroad he might seek to use his position as a Nobel laureate to cause trouble for China. As for his illness, the article darkly said that Liu had himself to blame:
China has not collapsed as the West forecast in the 1980s and 1990s, but has created a global economic miracle. A group of pro-democracy activists and dissidents lost a bet and ruined their lives. Although Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he is likely to face tragedy in the end.
After Liu died the newspaper predicted that Liu would be forgotten with time. It said that heroes are only created if their “endeavors and persistence have value to the country’s development and historical trends.”
In a way, this is in fact the crux of the issue: what is China’s historic arc? China’s authoritarian leaders justified their reign through mysticism: that the forces of history had chosen the Communist Party. Then, after thirty years of political upheaval and famines ended in the late 1970s, the Party adopted the role of a development dictatorship: it developed, therefore it ruled.
For about the past decade, however, this rationale has faded as growth has slowed and many Chinese grow used to prosperity. Now China’s rulers use other justifications: they are helping to restore traditions destroyed during the twentieth century, and vow to create a more moral political and social order. This has been the promise of Xi Jinping, who is nearly halfway through what is expected to be a ten-year reign at the top.
But how to reconcile this new vision with the treatment of people like Liu? In one of his essays, Liu made a prescient point about dissent. He said that people today have become less willing to tolerate the government locking people up for expressing their views.
I think this is right. People support the government for jailing or even executing terrorists or those accused of corruption. But for merely suggesting a course of political reform? People will shake their heads and say that it’s typical of the Communist Party to do this, but I’ve rarely met anyone other than an apologist who thinks it’s justified.
Maybe this is because the idea of remonstrating—of offering constructive criticism—has been an accepted part of China’s political system for thousands of years. China has a long history and many emperors have rejected advice and executed officials for daring to offer it. But they always went down in history as the bad guys. If Xi is trying to recreate some sort of traditional moral order then how can one justify such harsh treatment of people just for their ideas?
This is why Liu matters: his life and death stand for the fundamental conundrum of Chinese reformers over the past century—not how to boost GDP or recover lost territories, but how to create a more humane and just political system.
Like Tan, Liu knew his place in history. Tan saw China plagued by a cycle of karmic evil that had to be broken. For Liu, his role as a public intellectual was to see the future and report back, whatever the costs. As he wrote in the 1988 essay “On Solitude:”
Their most important, indeed their sole destiny…is to enunciate thoughts that are ahead of their time. The vision of the intellectual must stretch beyond the range of accepted ideas and concepts of order; he must be adventurous, a lonely forerunner; only after he has moved on far ahead do others discover his worth…he can discern the portents of disaster at a time of prosperity, and in his self-confidence experience the approaching obliteration.*
Ian Johnson reports from Beijing and Berlin. His new book, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, was published in April. He received the 2016 Shorenstein Journalism Award. (June 2017)
* From Geremie Barmé, “Confession, Redemption, and Death: Liu Xiaobo and the Protest Movement of 1989,” in The Broken Mirror: China After Tiananmen, edited by George Hicks (Longman, 1990).