Liu Xiaobo (1955-2017) is a monumental figure in modern Chinese history. The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate died in custody in a Shenyang hospital in 2017 while being treated for liver cancer. A prolific writer, Liu first rose to international fame as a “dark horse” literary critic in the 1980s. In 1989, Liu left his position as a visiting professor at Columbia University to mentor the leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen student movement. On June 6, two days after the bloody crackdown, Liu was abducted and taken to Beijing’s Qincheng Prison, where he was held for twenty months. Upon his release, Liu agitated for the release of other political prisoners arrested for their participation in the protests. In 1996, he was sentenced to three years in a labor camp in Dalian for his activism. Upon this second release, Liu continued writing and organizing, developing deep contacts with broad swathes of Chinese society. His editorial and social skills—and encouragement from his mentor Ding Zilin—saw him become involved in drafting Charter 08, a radical blueprint for a democratic society in a post-Party China modeled on the Charter 77 movement of Czech and Slovak dissidents. Liu was arrested on the eve of Charter 08’s release and sentenced to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.” While incarcerated, Liu won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. Although he was technically released on medical parole while ill with liver cancer, he never regained his freedom of movement, and died while still in state custody.
Perry Link, professor emeritus of East Asian studies at Princeton University and professor of comparative literature/Chinese at the University of California, Riverside, joined CDT to discuss his new book “I Have No Enemies: The Life and Legacy of Liu Xiaobo.” The biography, co-authored with a friend of Liu writing under the pen name Wu Dazhi, is a landmark work on Liu’s intellectual and personal life, as well as a portrait of the cataclysmic shifts through which he lived: the Cultural Revolution under Mao Zedong, Reform and Opening under Deng Xiaoping, the Tiananmen protest movement and its aftermath, the burgeoning Rights Defense Movement of the 2000s, and, finally, Liu’s death in custody in the Xi Jinping era.
Liu Xiaobo famously declared, “I have no enemies,” and was equally uninterested in his own lionization. It is thus fitting that Wu Dazhi ended the book with this note: “The Chinese people themselves are an endless source of energy and creativity, as unpredictable as they are unstoppable in their quest to build a free and dignified society. Keep watching for new faces. They will be coming.” While Liu was a “monument, not just another spark,” in the words of Perry Link, the book is also a tribute to the sparks to come.
The following interview has been edited for brevity, clarity, and grammar.
China Digital Times: How did Liu Xiaobo’s upbringing during the Cultural Revolution inform his lifelong reflections on “enemies”?
PERRY LINK: It was a big influence. He grew up in the Mao era and went to school where little children were taught absolute right was the Party, absolute wrong was the opponents of the Party—a very Manichaean mindset about good and evil—and your job is to join the good side and sacrifice all, even your life, for it. He absorbed this, as all the other little children did. As he grew through life and came to reject it, he thought the “all good, all bad” setup was wrong. It didn’t fit life. It didn’t fit his values. He wanted to see human beings more complexly.
CDT: In his later writings, he often mentions trying to excise himself of that [Maoist] thinking, although he worried that it could never be purged.
LINK: He questions himself. He’s very good at that. “What am I doing? Am I being selfish?” This image of the hero, who stands forth and gets praise from peers and the press, including the Western press for being a “courageous hero against the autocracy”— he didn’t like that image. He saw it in others and feared it in himself. It goes back to the fundamental insight from his childhood education: the world is not all good or bad. We need to be able to see human beings as they are.
CDT: That ties into his distaste for Scar Literature, which he didn’t find to be a truly modern literature. The glory of noble individual suffering reminded him of Maoism.
LINK: He objected to the glorification of victimhood, if you will: “I was an intellectual in the Cultural Revolution and this happened to me and wasn’t it terrible.” And of course it was. Those Scar Literature stories told truths, and they were exhilarating to readers. But from the point of view of the teller of the story, it was self-assertive. “Look how I suffered, and aren’t I a hero for having gone through the suffering?” He didn’t want that to be part of his own image.
CDT: In the 1980s, Liu Xiaobo had a meteoric rise from unknown graduate student to “dark horse,” and then later much more. He was very critical of himself and his peers. What were the “feudal” patterns of thought he saw in contemporary intellectuals? And what did the May Fourth Movement mean to him?
LINK: The so-called “feudal mentality” is the encrusted thinking that grew out of the Mao-era education. He had second thoughts about using the word “feudal.” It puts the user of the word in handcuffs. It keeps you from thinking freely: to assume that one side is right, one side is wrong. Scar Literature he saw as flipping the sides, as it were. The Maoists, who in the mid-70s were all right, now are all wrong. The Gang of Four is completely evil.
Whereas the May Fourth Movement, at least Lu Xun, who was his real North Star in the May Fourth Movement, saw deeper dilemmas and struggles in human life. What’s the right thing to do? Lu Xun was a self-doubter, just as Liu Xiaobo was by nature. When he read Lu Xun and a few others from the May Fourth Movement, he thought they were exploring what it is to be human, fundamentally, and not just being soldiers in the Good Guys vs. Bad Guys War.
He was always questioning himself. There are several places in his life where he learns, “I was wrong,” and then turns on a dime. He does that with his attitude towards wives. He did that too in his 1989 book, “Contemporary Chinese Politics and Chinese Intellectuals.” He wrote the whole book on the premise that China needed to learn from the West and then suddenly decided the premise was wrong. We don’t just have to learn from the West, we have to stare into the abyss of what it is to be human. That we must not only criticize China according to the standards the West holds up for us but also invite criticism of all human beings, including Western human beings, about what we’re doing in this world. I say this is turning a corner because this book was all set to go. It was in proofs. It was going to be published. And he wrote to the publisher and said, “Wait, I need to write an afterword.” He wrote the afterword and it completely upset the main premise of the book. So that’s another example of how he’s always digging for the truth and questioning himself, and doesn’t care if it upsets everything else, including what he himself has written.
CDT: After the publication of his book—which he wrote while abroad in early 1989—he made the decision to fly back to China, arriving the day after the April 26 editorial. What was his initial engagement with the Tiananmen student movement?
LINK: He was worried about the direction of China. When the demonstrations popped up, he thought it might be a turning point, and [asked himself,] “Who am I to sit here in New York and pontificate from a distance?” This is another reflection of his self-questioning, and his self-doubting. He doesn’t want to be an overseas hero along with Hu Ping—who he admires, but Hu Ping was settled overseas and he wasn’t. His new lens had to do with the culture of democracy that he’d seen in action—first in Hong Kong, actually, and then in New York—which showed that democracy is not just a theory that somebody at the top thinks, that then spreads down into society. He thought of it as a culture. People in Hong Kong get in line for the bus, because that’s the fair thing to do. People in New York respect each other. They listen to somebody else’s view, even if it’s not theirs. He saw this as essential to making not just a democratic society—it wasn’t that sort of pro-Western idea—so much as advancing to the next stage of human development.
He goes back to Beijing hoping that that will take root. He expected that he would be a rock star as he was before, but the rock stardom had already faded and passed to other people. He came back expecting to be able to preach this new doctrine: “Everybody has to have a democratic spirit and respect other views and work out answers by consultation,” but it didn’t take because all those students were really in a tizzy and very absorbed in doing something immediately. They were turning to people like Wu’er Kaixi for their spiritual leadership. He [Liu Xiaobo] was a preacher without a congregation. He tacked up a Big Character Poster on his home campus and nobody read it. Then somebody took it down! That was a problem.
Then when he saw the behavior of the students in the Square, he saw not a modern, next-stage human development, democracy in action, but rather a lot of old “me first” power-grabbing tendencies. Some of the student leaders had bodyguards. They would make requirements of people who could come into the inner sanctum. This was more like a “little emperor” than it was the modern, democratic spirit he admired. And they were messy. They threw garbage and urinated all over the Square. He wrote about this later in his “Monologues of a Doomsday Survivor,” that he was disappointed by those things. Yet he didn’t give up his ideals. When he went to the Square at the end of the demonstrations in early June, he wrote his June 2 Declaration that spells out his latest thinking of what’s good for everybody about this new democratic-spirited approach.
CDT: That declaration reads to me as perhaps the major turning point in his intellectual experience. Could you summarize the main [theme] he carried through his life all the way through the Charter ?
LINK: I agree with you that that document [the June 2 Declaration] is a turning point in the record of his thinking, but I’m not sure it was right at that moment when he wrote it that the turn happened. I think the turn started on his trip abroad. He was startled in Hong Kong to see that people got in line to get on the bus. People were respectful of others’ opinions in a way that in China—whether you’re on the government side or the dissident side—wasn’t there. He had that famous line in the interview, where he said it might take 300 years for a country as big as China to get to where Hong Kong is today. The government grabbed that line and used it to distort what he thought and say that he was anti-Chinese, which is ridiculous. The thought that started in Hong Kong was that, yes, Chinese people can do that too. They can have this new spirit of respecting others and not being Manichaeistic—“You’re all good or all bad.” And then he went to Hawaii and New York, especially in New York, where he got involved more and he talked with Hu Ping and others you know, even Ai Weiwei, I think that year abroad was where his June 2 Declaration thinking percolated and developed, and then the June 2 statement was just a kind of a summary of what he’d already been thinking about.
CDT: Liu divorced in prison and married in prison. [He got divorced from Tao Li, his first wife, while at Qincheng Prison in Beijing after the Tiananmen protests, and married Liu Xia while in a labor camp in Dalian.]
LINK: I hadn’t realized that before.
CDT: Why did prison seem to fundamentally change his relationship with women?
LINK: Well, first of all, I don’t think it was going to prison that made him change his attitude towards his wife. I think it was his lifelong self-introspection that we’ve talked about already. He looks back at his role in Tiananmen and he writes this remarkable record called “The Monologues of a Doomsday Survivor,” where he questions whether he was really a leader. [Link, paraphrasing Liu:] “Didn’t the regime, by calling me a ‘black hand’ and putting me in prison, make me into a hero? It wasn’t that I was any more heroic than anybody else.” Then he started to think about Tao Li, who was loyal to him all the way through his incarceration and was trying to send him money at Tiananmen while he was there, and meanwhile, he was flirting with girls. It suddenly struck him that this is part of what he should be introspective about. [Link, paraphrasing again:] “I was a great leader and all the people were cheering for me and a lot of women were cheering for me and sex is fun and I got into it and I shouldn’t have been doing that.” It was that kind of self-examination that led him to change his attitude towards Tao Li and his son—not really the prison guards themselves. They didn’t know or care about that at all. But he did become remorseful about it. When Tao Li and her family came to prison with divorce papers, he signed immediately and said, “This is reasonable for you to do,” and even went further in his writing, [admitting] that he was a bad husband and a bad father. He really regretted it.
When the government did come to press him about what they wanted, they wanted him to say that he didn’t see anybody killed on the Square. His friend, the Taiwanese singer Hou Dejian, had already given them an interview that said that, and they wanted him [Liu Xiaobo] to say it too. This would carry a lot of weight, the main “black hand” saying, “No one died in the Square.” The government at the time was pushing the ridiculously false line that nobody was killed at all, that it wasn’t a massacre. The other side was saying there were at least hundreds, maybe thousands, killed. So to have a line from Liu Xiaobo himself saying that he didn’t see anybody die in the Square would be prestidigitation because the question was how many people were murdered, not where exactly did you see anybody murdered. Liu Xiaobo gave in to that pressure, not because of cowardice so much as a very hard-headed kind of truth concept he had. His anchor all the way through was “What is the real truth?” They asked him, “True or false? Did you see anybody killed on the Square?” [Link, paraphrasing:] “No, I didn’t myself see anybody killed in the Square and I don’t even know if it happened on the Square.” They asked him this question and forced him to answer, and so he answered truthfully.
Part of it too is that he didn’t want Hou Dejian to take all the blame for saying that. After Hou Dejian said it, people jumped all over him: “What are you, a turncoat? Siding with [the] regime?” Hou Dejian was just saying what he did or didn’t see. Liu Xiaobo generously, if you will, thought if there’s going to be blame for this, I should share the blame. I was in the middle of a horrible massacre but I didn’t see anybody killed. Later, he really regretted giving in that way to the government—not because it wasn’t true, it was true—but because he should have known that they would misuse it for their own mendacious purposes.
While he was in prison, he had these two very soul-rending experiences of remorse: one about how he had treated Tao Li, and one about having given in to the government’s demands to make that statement. That changed him. He came out different.
But back to the question of Tao Li. You used the phrase “his relationship with women,” and I think there’s a misunderstanding there—not just yours—I mean a popular misunderstanding that he did a 180 on his attitude toward women. His father was a tyrant. He had conflicts with his father. His father beat him physically. The people who helped him through that were women: his father’s mother and his own mother. He had a respect and a tie with women there. Then he met Tao Li in junior high school in Inner Mongolia. She was a year older than he, and she was a better student than he. He adored her, not just romantically, but her intellect. They read Marx together and they traded notes about it. They went back to Beijing and went to different colleges, but they were still in touch. She was his intellectual superior: in his view, [he’s] learning with Tao Li and from Tao Li. So I don’t think there’s a fundamental male-chauvinist streak in him. In fact, he rejected his father’s male-chauvinist attitudes where he’s the boss, he gets the best food in the household, and whatever he says goes and the women listen. All through his life, he had a sympathy for the inequality that women suffer, and especially, that children suffer.
So how do we explain his mistreatment of Tao Li? I think it’s just that when he got to his rock star years, when students packed auditoriums in the late 80s to listen to him, and they included female students, and the female students adored him, and he started to flirt. He discovered, to put it bluntly, that sex is fun. It wasn’t that he decided that women were now a subclass below men. It was just that sex is fun and being a rock star is fun. He got carried away with that. Then when he’s in prison, and Tao Li comes with divorce papers, he realizes that “sex is fun” was a wrong path and he was carried away by something and that was wrong. But he had a fundamental respect for women before and after. He became a student of Ding Zilin [professor of philosophy, activist, and leader of the Tiananmen Mothers]. She was his female mentor all through those post-Tiananmen years. So I think we have to correct the record there on his attitude toward women.
CDT: The Chinese state made an immense effort to turn Liu Xiaobo into a fringe figure through censorship, imprisonment, and monitoring. And then in the early 2000s, the internet started to explode. Liu Xiaobo was a pivotal figure in early Chinese internet culture. How did the internet change his relationship to Chinese society?
LINK : When he came out [of the labor camp in 1999], he discovered there were liberal trends in the semi-official press, the Southern Weekend Group, etc. Liberal thinking was around, and with it, the internet. He at first called the Internet “God’s gift to China,” or to the world. It provided a platform for expression, which was revolutionarily new in the Chinese media field. If you look back at the Communist movement from the beginnings at Yan’an, the Communist Party put out the directives and “the truth” on blackboards. People who were literate could read it. Even in the ‘50s, public blackboards were an important way for messaging to come down from the top. Then radio spread all across China and, a couple of decades later, television. Then books and magazines sprouted up all through the 50s, Party-sponsored printed publications. All of these media were unidirectional in the sense that the platform was above, with the Party, and the messages went down from the platform to everybody else. There was no response mechanism. There were of course pro forma notices in publications about letters from readers, but those were manicured and just another form of top-down messaging. What the internet did, and why it was revolutionary, is that now anybody could have his or her own platform. You not only learn from the internet what others are saying but you can turn right around and say what you think. This was a big leap forward for him and for the Chinese dissident community, generally.
He’s got a wonderful essay about the difference between gathering signatures in the late ‘90s and in the early 2000s. In the late ‘90s, he had to have a petition and then jump on his bicycle and go east, west, north, south, all across Beijing. Even then, he’s confined to Beijing to gather signatures from people, and if one person disagrees with a paragraph in the statement, then he’s got to consult the other ones [by] riding his bicycle around the city—so time-consuming and enervating! Whereas when you’re on the internet, you can do this with a click. It was immensely easier to have political organization because you have your own platform. When you’ve got your statement ready, you can put it out and then you are the messenger, not just the receiver of messages. So that’s the mechanism by which the internet became revolutionarily important.
He has another charming essay where he says, “You don’t need messages from the outside world to tell Chinese people about human rights. You don’t need a statement from Human Rights Watch that the arrest of so-and-so was wrong. All you need is the internet.” You’ve got a group of people who live in the same community and suffer the same injustices, but they’re all atomized because they can’t talk to each other except by word of mouth, face to face. You can’t perceive the fact that we all agree about these things, all of us suffer the same injustices. But when you’ve got the internet, that horizontal connection can work. People will agree that when leader X did XYZ, that was wrong. You don’t have to teach them that this is a violation of human rights. They don’t need the theory, because it comes from inside. It’s wrong to shut somebody up or persecute someone because they said something that the leader didn’t like. Ordinary people don’t have to be taught that. They already feel it. It was the internet—because of its ability to do these horizontal connections—that made it possible for them to realize we agree. That was the big breakthrough of the internet.
He never really foresaw—he didn’t quite live long enough or stay out of prison long enough—how the internet could be used by the regime in controlling people and threatening people from the top down. That, of course, is an important problem. And we can guess what he would think about that. But the initial onset of the internet was 100% positive, this was only good.
CDT: We would be remiss not to discuss Charter 08. What was it?
LINK: Charter 08 was an effort by some of Liu Xiaobo’s friends to formulate the overall lessons that the Citizens Movement was learning. What kind of blueprint for future ideals for China should we agree upon and put out there for our fellow citizens to consider and agree upon? Liu Xiaobo was not in favor of that idea, at first. He didn’t participate in the original drafting. He didn’t oppose it, but his reason for skepticism was that he felt it was another top-down impulse, that we’re gonna write a blueprint for a future China that will apply from the top down. For the ones who are organizing it, that future was an important part of it. Did they think that their idealistic blueprint could be adopted right now? No, but it should be there for people to think about, and to be ready if the time comes. Or, I should say, when the time comes—when there is regime change and we’ll need a blueprint. Those are the reasons they wanted to do it. I think, to be honest, some of the reasons they wanted to do it was that old 1980s notion of “We are the intellectual leaders, and we’re going to change from the top down by writing this document.” Liu Xiaobo was skeptical that that was the right approach. He was still sold on the bottom-up approach and he was involved in a number of the other bottom-up projects.
He came on board in September and October of ‘08, when his mentor Ding Zilin twisted his arm and said, “Xiaobo, you’ve got to help them.” She said there [are] two things you have that are sorely lacking among them. One is editorial ability. This charter was written by a whole bunch of people that contributed to this and that topic— everything from how to do elections, to publication law, all the way over to education, the military, and environmental protection. It was a potpourri of stuff written by different hands. Ding Zilin said, “You are a good writer.” Xiaobo was a brilliant writer and [she said,] “You can edit it and make it into a coherent document.” The other thing [Ding Zilin thought he could do was help them spread word about Charter 08]. From ‘99, when he came out of the labor camp, he was involved with society. He was taking to heart this “start from the bottom up” [idea]. The bottom didn’t necessarily mean peasants in rural areas. It meant anywhere in society where you can get people interested, you do it. He’s a gregarious type and he had contacts among labor leaders and farmer leaders and even people in the regime who sympathized and wanted change. Ding Zilin said, “You can get signatures, because you have so many social contacts.” He conceded on those two points and agreed, mostly due to her gentle pressure. I don’t think he would have done it without her pressure. He thought the world of her and took her advice.
Through the fall, he did editing, and back and forth, and forth and back. He talked with me on the phone a couple of times because near the end, there were last-minute changes that this or that person was requesting and I had been asked to be the official English translator for this document. They sent it to me. I have to admit, I’m embarrassed, I ignored it for two or three weeks. I just didn’t realize how important it was until I got a message, “Are you going to do this or not?” He was telling me changes that he wanted to make and I had a little conflict with him near the end, because just a few days, literally, before it was going to be released he was calling me with changes and I thought, “How can you make changes now when you’ve already got 300 signatures on it?” So I pushed back a little on a couple of the changes. I can’t remember what they were now, something to do with whether Falun Gong should be mentioned by name or not.
It came out two days before it was scheduled to come out. That was because word leaked to the regime that it was going to come out. There were police mustering around his apartment building and everybody could sense there was a crackdown. There was a fear that if they crack down and tell us we can’t publish it, then if we publish it, we will be officially violating what they instruct, and that will bring bigger punishment than if we get it out quick. But already, it was obvious that it was going to bring punishments. They hauled [away] Liu Xiaobo on the night of the 8th of December and he never did come back. He knew that somebody was going to pay for having done this charter. In prison, again you see his willingness to take the rap. He told his lawyers that if anybody asks about the authors or the contributors to the document, just tell them to say that it was Liu Xiaobo who did it—willingly putting his head on the chopping block in order that others might be spared. The main coordinator of Charter 08 was Zhang Zuhua, who was detained for 36 hours or so but wasn’t sentenced and never was criminally indicted. There was some ill feeling that lingered later among Liu Xiaobo’s friends that this was unfair. I don’t blame Zhang Zuhua at all and I don’t think Liu Xiaobo blamed him either.
From the regime’s point of view, they saw this whole thing as a color revolution. Ever since Gorbachev lost the Soviet Union, they were dead set against having a color revolution happen in China. The way to stifle a color revolution is to cut off the head, so you look for the head guy and you punish him and you hold him up for everybody else to look at and you intimidate the whole movement that way. They mistakenly—I think they just didn’t know the inner workings of the Charter well enough—assumed that Liu Xiaobo was the ringleader. It’s clear that that sentence that they gave him was aimed to intimidate others, not just to imprison him.
CDT: How does Liu Xiaobo’s legacy impact Chinese society today?
LINK: Someone who champions him as I do has to be honest here. I think the repression is working. Young people don’t know who he is, and the ones who do are often misled by the government’s false broadcasting about him. As I mentioned, his statement in Hong Kong that China might need 300 years of colonialism in order to catch up with Hong Kong was taken way out of context and broadly disseminated. You talk with young people and ask, “What do you know about Liu Xiaobo?” [They say,] “Oh, he’s the one who said China needs 300 years of colonialism.” The repression and the mendacity of the regime have worked, I’m sorry to say. There has to be a pessimistic answer to that question.
But insofar as it’s not pessimistic, and here I’ll pin my own hopes, is that it still is alive under a small minority of Chinese intellectuals in their tradition. I don’t know if you’ve seen Ian Johnson’s new book “Sparks.” The theme there is that all the way from the 1950s—when Lin Zhao martyred herself in prison and wrote poetry in her own blood and then was shot and the parents were charged to pay for the bullet that killed her—through the Cultural Revolution, into the Democracy Wall period, and to 1989. And although the mainstream of Chinese opinion has been misled, and has not remembered, from event to event to event, what earlier people in their events had done. So it’s the forced amnesia all through these decades has been very effective, but not entirely effective. This strand of sparks, if you will. It’s a very small number, but it’s continuous, and it continues to be continuous. At that level, Liu Xiaobo is a monument, not just another spark.
In the long run, when regime change finally comes and this tradition of sparks survives, it’s possible that he will again become very well known. There are examples of that kind of revival. One is the famous May 4 literati Hu Shi, who became an official in the KMT government and an ambassador to the United States. In the 1950s, there were multiple campaigns against Hu Shi. If you’d asked Chinese students in the 1960s, ‘70s, even ‘80s, “Who is Hu Shi?” you’d draw a blank. Then in the ‘90s, some Chinese historians rediscovered him—you might even say exonerated and rehabilitated him. He became admired and widely read, maybe not among ordinary people or even among high school students, but certainly among intellectuals who not only remembered him, but admired him and put him again on a pedestal. So there you have a rebound after some decades of repression of somebody’s reputation. That could happen with Liu Xiaobo and it certainly will be much more likely to happen when we get to the eventual regime change. I use the word eventual because it’ll happen—probably not in my lifetime—but that’s the only fundamental solution to China’s quest for modernity, to have the CCP regime go away. When it does, the door will be open to rehabilitating people’s reputations and Liu Xiaobo will certainly be on the list of ones to be looked at again.