Liu Xiaobo currently resides in the Jinzhou Prison in the Liaoning Province of China, serving an 11-year prison term. His “crime”: drafting and promoting Charter ‘08, a manifesto that demands human rights and democratic reforms in China.

Although well known in human rights circles, Liu first came to widespread international attention when he was named the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. When the prize was announced, Liu’s wife Liu Xia was promptly placed under house arrest, rendering her unable to attend the ceremony. Chinese state media then launched a vicious attack, denouncing Liu for winning an award "undeserved for a criminal".

book coverWhile Beijing has done everything in its power to suppress Liu’s work and his international recognition, a recent collection of essays and poems allows readers to explore his unique insight. No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems [Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, January 2012] features essays interspersed with poems selected by Liu’s wife. The most poignant are written to her and represent - ultimately - what the struggle is about: the choice between love and hatred. His poems converge with the academic essays, touching on critical reflections of state communist ideology, and diverging from the pedantic to examine instead the writer as a human being. The result is a provocatively sophisticated compendium of observations of contemporary Chinese authoritarian society.

Despite his profound contributions to the human rights movement in China, Liu’s essays are saturated with determined modesty and guilt. In the book’s first piece, "Listen Carefully to the Voice of the Tiananmen Mothers", Liu expresses regret for surviving the tumultuous Tiananmen Square protests while others were murdered by the Chinese government. "What have I ever done for the massacre victims?" he asks. He laments his "self-styled elitism" and the fact that he wrote a confession when in detention for the first time. It is perhaps this humble perception of his own contribution to the cause that drives him to continue to voice publicly his discontent with China’s one-party state:  "If we stand up for our dignity," Liu explains, "we live nobly, no matter how much we may risk or suffer."

In the course of his writing, Liu makes an intriguing observation about China’s double standards in its relationship with the West. Despite its overtly anti-Western political stance, Beijing’s dogged nationalism is being chipped away by its people’s desire to "Westernize". In the recent past, "pretty-girl writers", who wrote about sexualized female characters cloaked in Chinese notions of Western clothes, in Western bars and Western notions of sex, became quickly popular in China, and Chinese films and television were filled with storylines of infidelity, prostitution and excess. "The craze for political revolution in decades past has now turned into a craze for money and sex," says Liu. He is concerned that the youth’s interest in political reform is being overtaken by an obsession with material things.

Liu isn’t entirely pessimistic about China’s progress towards democracy. With the help of the internet, Liu believes change can be made in China. He muses about how with the click of a mouse, his words can be made available to the world in less than a second. He is also hopeful the popular egaos (online political satires) will ease the eventual transition to democracy. "Satire of what is wrong implies that something else is right," says Liu.

Liu’s fearless essays are especially compelling because they bridge the gap between academic analysis of China’s political situation and dilettante observations of the country’s cultural and social evolution. They are an invaluable window into Chinese intellectual life and an extraordinary contribution to modern literature. Sadly, forceful discourse and revelatory disquisitions like these constitute a crime in today’s China. And Liu is not the only victim of this kind of political persecution. Human rights violations are state policy in China: forced labor camps hold millions of prisoners; arbitrary detention, media censorship, and blatant disregard for the rule of law are routine. Some may want to turn a blind eye to Beijing’s abuses because of its influence on the global economy or its record of poverty reduction since it abandoned Maoist socialism for Milton Friedman’s free enterprise system, but its draconian repression has made it one of the cruellest dictatorships on the planet.

The similarities with the writings of both Václav Havel and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn are striking. All three possess an uncomplicated ability to inspire the dignified and peaceful fight against totalitarianism. In Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel lecture, he asked what one man - let alone a writer - can do against the pitiless onslaught of naked violence: "violence does not live alone and is not capable of living alone: it is necessarily interwoven with falsehood," and gave his prescription: "one word of truth outweighs the whole world." In a different decade, Havel observed: "If the main pillar of the system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth," and Havel’s time in prison is proof that truth - for a regime - "must be suppressed more severely than anything else."  Liu’s decision to "live in truth" makes him unique among Chinese intellectuals.

In 1989, before returning to China from the United States, Liu said, "I hope that I’m not the type of person who, standing in the doorway to hell, strikes a heroic pose and then starts frowning in indecision." Liu didn’t frown. We shouldn’t either.

Thor Halvorssen is president of the Human Rights Foundation and founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum.  He is a member of the International Committee to Support Liu Xiaobo.

(Photo in frontpage © CHRD)