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How Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo became the face of peaceful political opposition in China

July 14, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
Nobel laureate and renowned human rights activist Liu Xiaobo died Thursday in China after complications with liver cancer. Since 2009, Liu had served time behind bars after calling for political reform that would democratize his homeland’s government. His work and plight garnered global awareness. William Brangham reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died yesterday in China of liver cancer after years behind bars for his efforts to democratize his homeland.

Liu’s work and his plight brought him global attention, work that enraged the Chinese government. His death brought an outpouring of tributes.

William Brangham has this look at Liu Xiaobo’s life and legacy.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: From Hong Kong to Sydney and around the world, there have been vigils overnight and today.

John Kamm runs a human rights organization based in San Francisco that advocates for political prisoners in China.

JOHN KAMM, The Dui Hua Foundation: A great loss for China. Someone who was committed to nonviolent change is gone. And it’s a great loss for the world.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: He’d been released from prison on medical leave only a few weeks earlier, but supporters say he was denied proper care.

WU’ER KAIXI, Chinese Dissident: The Chinese government brutally killed my teacher and one of the most genuine and conscientious Chinese in the world. I would like to ask the world, world leaders and people around the world, which side are you on?

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: President Trump praised Liu in a statement yesterday, calling him a poet, scholar, and courageous advocate.

China’s government flatly denies Liu was mistreated, and, today, a spokesman condemned the international criticisms.

GENG SHUANG, Foreign Ministry Spokesman, China (through interpreter): Those statements are interference to China’s judicial sovereignty and domestic affairs. Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who was put on trial by China’s laws.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: For decades, Liu was one of the Chinese government’s most outspoken critics. He rose to prominence during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, returning from the U.S. to support the original student demonstrators.

After troops opened fire killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, Liu helped negotiate safe passage for the survivors. He remained in China despite detention and constant surveillance and continued his political advocacy.

In 2008, he helped author Charter 08, a manifesto demanding political and civil reform, and he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for subversion.

JOHN KAMM: Ten thousand people signed that petition. He is the only one to have been sentenced to prison. So, I think he sacrificed there, too.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: But the case gained international attention, and, in 2010, over China’s vehement objections, Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Stuck in prison, Liu was unable to attend the Nobel ceremony, so a chair was left empty in Oslo. And a statement he had written for his trial was used as his Nobel lecture.

“Hatred can rot a person’s wisdom and conscience,” it said.

Still, Beijing’s hard line on Liu makes clear that the reforms he sought for decades appear increasingly out of reach.

JOHN KAMM: There’s a major party meeting coming up in a few months. The government and its president and Chairman Xi Jinping will be inclined to be very, very tough. In terms of changing China’s political system, I don’t see it, I’m afraid.

WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The focus turns now to Liu’s wife, Liu Xia. She remains under house arrest. And calls for her release, including from the secretary of state, have so far gone unheeded.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m William Brangham.