The passion of Liu Xiaobo

Perry Link writes: In the late 1960s Mao Zedong, China’s Great Helmsman, encouraged children and adolescents to confront their teachers and parents, root out “cow ghosts and snake spirits,” and otherwise “make revolution.” In practice, this meant closing China’s schools. In the decades since, many have decried a generation’s loss of education.

Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was sentenced to eleven years for “inciting subversion” of China’s government, and who died of liver cancer on Thursday, illustrates a different pattern. Liu, born in 1955, was eleven when the schools closed, but he read books anyway, wherever he could find them. With no teachers to tell him what the government wanted him to think about what he read, he began to think for himself—and he loved it. Mao had inadvertently taught him a lesson that ran directly counter to Mao’s own goal of converting children into “little red soldiers.”

But this experience only partly explains Liu’s stout independence. It also seems to have been an inborn trait. If there is a gene for bluntness, Liu likely had it. In the 1980s, while still a graduate student in Chinese literature, he was already known as a “black horse” for denouncing nearly every contemporary Chinese writer: the literary star Wang Meng was politically slippery; “roots-seeking” writers like Han Shaogong were excessively romantic about the value of China’s traditions; even speak-for-the-people heroes like Liu Binyan were too ready to pin hopes on “liberal” Communist leaders like Hu Yaobang. No one was independent enough. “I can sum up what’s wrong with Chinese writers in one sentence,” Liu Xiaobo wrote in 1986. “They can’t write creatively themselves—they simply don’t have the ability—because their very lives don’t belong to them.” [Continue reading…]

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