divLiu Xiaobo passed away on July 13th, 2017, at age 61. This piece was originally posted at AtlasNework.org on September 8, 2016.
When I think of examples of successful self-control and dignity under the most difficult circumstances, one person comes to mind before all others: 刘晓波, Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese writer and human rights activist, who was sentenced on Dec. 25, 2009, to 11 years of imprisonment in China on the charge of “inciting subversion of state power.” Liu’s body is in prison and he is being made to suffer deprivation of liberty, health, companionship, and more by state authorities, but he will not allow himself to be consumed by the hatred that would destroy a person with less self-control. Before being subjected to years of imprisonment and abuse, he had tried to lead a life of freedom and responsibility.
"What I demanded of myself was this: whether as a person or as a writer, I would lead a life of honesty, responsibility, and dignity,” Liu said.
Liu read his final statement after his sentencing, but was cut off after 14 minutes by the “judge” on grounds that the prosecution had spent only 14 minutes making the case against him. In it, he said, “I have no enemies and no hatred.” Liu exemplifies great self-control and mindfulness. He is focused on his goal: to foster a society of free and responsible persons who live together in equal freedom and mutual respect. He refuses to be consumed by hatred, because hatred and bitterness foster violence, cruelty, revenge, and oppression.
“Hatred can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience,” Liu said. “Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy. That is why I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation’s development and social change, to counter the regime’s hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love.”
I blink away tears every time I read Liu Xiaobo’s final statement. He not only refuses to be consumed by hatred, he takes the unjust occasion of his imprisonment to express his love for his wife, Liu Xia, who was forbidden by the state authorities to see him.
"I am serving my sentence in a tangible prison, while you wait in the intangible prison of the heart,” he said. “Your love is the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window, stroking every inch of my skin, warming every cell of my body, allowing me to always keep peace, openness, and brightness in my heart, and filling every minute of my time in prison with meaning. My love for you, on the other hand, is so full of remorse and regret that it at times makes me stagger under its weight. I am an insensate stone in the wilderness, whipped by fierce wind and torrential rain, so cold that no one dares touch me. But my love is solid and sharp, capable of piercing through any obstacle. Even if I were crushed into powder, I would still use my ashes to embrace you.”
Has there ever been a more poignant expression of love? “I would still use my ashes to embrace you.” As another translation phrased it, “I will embrace you with my ashes.”
Liu had spent time in America teaching, but in 1989, as the Tiananmen Square protests gathered adherents, he left the safety of Columbia University to return to China. For his efforts to avert violence and save lives, he was arrested and brutalized for two years without charge. Although he had come to believe that some elements of the political cultures of “the West” could be helpful to China, he was not blinded to the flaws of other countries, cultures, and political systems. In a 1989 essay written in New York (“Chinese Politics and China’s Modern Intellectuals”), he resolved to be true to himself.
If I, as a person who has lived under China’s autocratic system for more than thirty years, want to reflect on the fate of humanity or on how to be an authentic person, I have no choice but to carry out two critiques simultaneously. I must:
1. Use Western civilization as a tool to critique China.
2. Use my own creativity to critique the West.
Liu Xiaobo exemplifies, to perhaps the highest degree, the self-control of a human being. The Chinese state has imprisoned him, but he refuses to be their willing slave. He refuses to be controlled by the state. They cannot even make him hate them.
divMany of Liu’s papers are collected in his book No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems, by Liu Xiaobo, ed. by Perry Link, Tienchi Martin-Liao, and Liu Xia (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).