Three Ways to Remember Liu Xiaobo

In the past few days, journalists have called me asking for comments about how Liu Xiaobo’s death will impact Sino-European relations or China’s trade with Canada.  The journalists seem disappointed when I say, “Liu’s death probably won’t have any discernible impact on China’s relationship with the rest of the world, but the best way to honor his memory is to read his work.”  As Perry Link writes, “The breadth of topics in his poems and essays can be startling.” The best English-language compilation of Liu’s work is No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems, edited by Link, Tienchi Martin-Liao, and Liu Xia.  If you only have time to read three pieces, I recommend:

1. “Listen Carefully to the Voices of the Tiananmen Mothers: Reading the Unedited Interview Transcripts of Family Members Bereaved by the Massacre,” expertly translated by Paul G. Pickowicz in No Enemies, No Hatred, 3­–12. A Chinese version is here. This essay reflects Liu’s harsh self-criticism, explores his sense of survivor’s guilt, and shows how the Beijing massacre of 1989 was a turning point for him personally and for China as a whole.

2. “Long Live the Internet,” (2006) translated by Louisa Chiang in No Enemies, No Hatred, 203–210 (Chinese version here). Everyone knows that the Chinese Communist Party surveils, censors, and restricts web pages and social media. Fewer people realize how liberating the Internet has been for such dissidents and free thinkers as Liu Xiaobo. Liu celebrated the power of the web to organize, gather signatures, influence government policy, and create a virtual civil society that the Party-state has found impossible to fully control.

3. “Obama’s Election, The Republican Factor, and a Proposal for China” (2008), translated by Pickowicz in No Enemies, No Hatred, 270–276, and in Chinese here. Liu Xiaobo’s reaction to what he called the “American miracle” of Obama’s election was to suggest that the Chinese Communist Party “invite the Dalai Lama back to China to serve as our nation’s president, our Barack Obama.” I assign this essay to hundreds of undergraduates every year, many of them recent arrivals from mainland China. Some laugh and scoff. Some call Liu crazy; others call him a traitor. Then I ask them, “Why not? In what specific ways might China improve or get worse if the Dalai Lama replaced Xi Jinping as China’s president?” The exercise opens people’s minds to new possibilities, just as Liu had hoped.

The best way to remember Liu Xiaobo is to read his work and engage with his ideas—provocative ones like inviting a Tibetan to lead China, moderate ones like Charter 08, and heartbreaking ones like his tribute to the victims of the Beijing massacre. The alternative paths he imagined weren’t realized during his lifetime, but I hope that his strikingly unique ideas will gain strength over time.

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