“Liu Xiaobo is China’s Gandhi or Martin Luther King”

Three years ago on July 13, China’s first Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo died in a Chinese prison. In an interview, Chinese human rights lawyer Teng Biao and Chinese dissident writer Liao Yiwu both think that three years after Liu’s death, Beijing has increased its crackdown on dissidents and if Liu is still alive, he would support Hong Kong people’s resistance against Beijing.

On the third anniversary of Chinese Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo’s death, the Hong Kong alliance organized an online commemoration for him, remembering the prominent Chinese author and intellectual through speeches, music and poetry recitation.

Liu Xiaobo drafted and participated in the revelation of “Charter 08,” which was soon signed by 303 intellectuals and dissidents in China. However in December, 2008, Liu was arrested and detained for “inciting subversion of state power.” The following December, Liu was tried on the same charges and sentenced to eleven years in prison and deprived of political rights for two years.

Chinese human rights lawyer Teng Biao was one of the co-signers of “Charter 08,” and he said Liu contributed a lot to China’s democratic movement as he participated in many kinds of protests over two decades. The revelation of “Charter 08” also pushed China’s democratic movement to a new level.

In the eyes of Chinese dissident author Liao Yiwu, Liu always wanted to become a “martyr” in order to trigger Chinese people’s sense of civility. “When he came out of jail for the third time, Liu thought Chinese people have lost their civility,” Liao said. “He thought China needed someone like the former Czech President Václav Havel to help people reclaim their civility. He used his imprisonment and martyrdom to help Chinese people achieve that goal. In my eyes, he is China’s Gandhi or Martin Luther King.”

China has been cracking down on dissidents for years

Looking back on the changes that China’s civil society has gone through since Liu passed away three years ago, Teng Biao thinks the most obvious change is that Xi Jinping intensified Beijing’s crackdown on political prisoners. “He has arrested more people and lowered the threshold for making arrests,” Teng explained.

“Many political prisoners have been given heavier prison sentences and some have even died in the prison. As for others, they lost their lives soon after being released. It is obvious that Beijing has intensified the crackdown on dissidents but it also reflects the Chinese government’s growing sense of crisis. They think the growing momentum in China’s civil society is now forming a serious threat to the country’s political system.”

Liao Yiwu thinks that Beijing has never stopped its crackdown on dissidents over the last few decades, but what became different over the last few years is that Beijing has extended its control over freedom of speech beyond its border.

“Western countries would still treat China like a normal trading partner if Beijing had not imposed the national security law on Hong Kong,” Liao said. “What lies behind the trade deal with China is an ideological infiltration launched by Beijing. The Chinese government has been cracking down on dissidents like Xu Zhangrun for decades.”

“I never thought Merkel would go the opposite way”

Liao Yiwu also pointed out that even though German Chancellor Angela Merkel was the only world leader who directly raised the issue of possibly letting Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia travel to Germany for Liu’s treatment during the 2017 G20 Summit in Hamburg, she didn’t maintain the same level of pressure on China over human rights issues in the following years.

“I never thought Merkel would go the opposite way after Liu Xia was freed,” Liao said. “She has remained relatively quiet on Beijing’s imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong, and Germany’s Minister of Economy and Energy even said that ‘Germany would not be world’s headteacher of morality,’” Liao said. “I think Germany has adopted a dangerous position on the issue of the national security law for Hong Kong.”

Teng Biao argues that even though western countries have gradually changed its attitude towards China over the last few years, he thinks they still prioritize economic benefits and geopolitics when they are dealing with China. “Western governments also need to prioritize common values like human rights and democratization,” Teng said. “So far, they have not prioritized human rights during any negotiation with Beijing.”

Teng thinks that even though the German government helped Liu Xiaobo’s wife Liu Xia to get to Germany in July, 2018, it didn’t mean that western countries have always been putting pressure on the Chinese government over human rights issues.

“Western countries have never done enough when it comes to highlighting human rights issues while dealing with China,” Teng said. “In the 1990s, some western governments were able to get some important political prisoners released and let them go to western countries through negotiations with Beijing. But since Hu Jintao became Chinese president, such practice was ceased.”

As China’s economic influence grows, western countries also view the Chinese government and access to the market as more and more important. Teng said that since the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, western governments have been engaging with China economically, but they failed to put enough importance on China’s democratization and human rights issues.

“Western governments have learned some tough lessons in the Middle East, as their experiences of facilitating regime changes have not been successful,” Teng explained. “This makes them reluctant to facilitate democratization in China. Additionally, they also realized that western countries still need China’s support on certain issues, so that makes them more unwilling to put pressure on China over human rights issues.”

“Liu Xiaobo will stand with those who resist authoritarianism”

As Beijing officially imposed the national security law on Hong Kong, Teng and Laio both think that Hong Kong protesters can gain some inspiration from the works Liu Xiaobo has published or his way to resist against the Chinese government.

Teng Biao highlights that since Liu has spent years trying to launch the democratic movement in China, he spent a lot of time analyzing the authoritarian political structure used by Beijing. He believes some of the experiences can be beneficial to people in Hong Kong.

“Liu has conducted very in-depth analysis about China’s authoritarian regime through years of academic research and resistance in reality,” Teng explained. “Additionally, he spent decades going in and out of prison in China, which is the type of resistance that Hong Kong protesters are fulfilling now.”

Liao called on prominent Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong and other Hong Kong people to learn from Liu Xiaobo’s experience, which is when the Chinese government tried to impose specific laws, they should “shout in defiance and resist as hard as they can.” “Joshua Wong and many Hong Kong people are already doing it, so if they keep protesting, the Chinese Communist Party will collapse one day,” Liao said.

Teng Biao thinks it is very important for Hong Kong protesters to maintain both the non-violent and more confrontational way of protesting. “From the words published by Liu, he would be on the side of resisting against the authoritarian regime if he were still alive,” Teng said. “He would not oppose to Hong Kong people’s protests.”

This piece first appeared in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.