News analysis

Liu Xiaobo's ideals will live on after his death

For now, Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo may be remembered by only a group of intellectuals from the 1980s and those inspired by that period of intellectual ferment.

A trawling of the Internet showed posts mourning Mr Liu, who died of liver cancer on Thursday. But of the comments that escaped the censors, many showed either ignorance of who he was or scepticism about his contribution to Chinese society.

Still, some analysts say, his ideals of freedom of expression and improvement of the human condition, among others, will live on, his place in history assured.

Mr Liu went to university in 1977 around the time of China's reform and opening up after the brutal Cultural Revolution of 1966 to 1976.

What followed the first reforms that began in 1978 was an invigorating period of intellectual ferment and relaxed censorship, particularly in the mid-1980s.

"It was a memorable age of idealism," recalled an analyst who asked not to be named.

Mr Liu, he said, "represents the Chinese idealism of the 1980s, a whole generation of people, particularly the scholars".

That heady period of openness and debate on China's future ended in the tragic Tiananmen incident of June 4, 1989, when People's Liberation Army troops mowed down hundreds of pro-democracy protesters, possibly more, in Tiananmen Square and nearby areas.

Mr Liu, who had taken part in the 1980s debates and in the Tiananmen protests, was one of the many thrown into prison in the aftermath of June 4.

But unlike some who later chose to leave the country - including student leaders of the Tiananmen protests Wang Dan and Wu'er Kaixi - Mr Liu chose to stay behind and soldier on.

That led to his many arrests and imprisonments, including a stint in a labour camp. The latest and longest jail term was in 2009 - an 11-year sentence for "inciting subversion of state power". He had co-authored a petition that called for protection of basic human rights, constitutional government and an end to one-party rule, among other things.

Dissidents who choose to leave for foreign shores, such as Mr Wei Jingsheng, a pro-democracy fighter, lose their moral high ground and see their influence decline, noted Hong Kong-based political analyst Willy Lam. Few in the United States, where Mr Wei resides, know who he is, added Dr Lam.

But those who choose to stay face "extermination", said Professor Jerome Cohen of New York University, an expert in Chinese law.

Noting that Mr Liu's friend Liao Yiwu, a writer in exile in Germany, was still active and alive and free to express his view, Prof Cohen wrote on his blog: "The dissimilar fates of Liao and Liu Xiaobo illustrate the painful choice (if they have that choice) that has always confronted civil libertarians from dictatorial regimes - exile or extermination."

But the harshness with which Mr Liu was treated, with the government not letting him go overseas for treatment despite calls by countries like the US and Germany, has in part to do with the hardline approach that the current government has towards dissidents and dealing with Western governments' pressure to ease off on them, said Dr Lam.

"Allowing Liu Xiaobo to leave China and his wife to go with him would be too big a concession and would look like buckling under pressure," he added.

Besides, Western governments in recent years have refrained from raising the human rights issue with Beijing because they do not want to run afoul of the Chinese government as China is a big source of investment and trade.

As for Mr Liu's legacy, it might appear that few in China today, particularly young people, have heard of him or his contributions.

Netizens' comments that escaped the censors include: "Who is that?"; "A person whose name cannot be mentioned, perhaps it is Voldemort (a villain in the Harry Potter series)?"; and "What has he achieved that is worthy of praise or remembrance?".

However, some analysts are optimistic about his ideals remaining relevant.

"The purpose of human society is to improve the human condition", and in that sense he will forever be relevant, said the analyst who requested anonymity.

Noting that China both made progress and suffered setbacks, he added: "You can slow down the change, but no one can stop it."

Social commentator Wu Jiaxiang believes the verdict of subversion against Mr Liu will not stand up to the test of history. "He gave voice to his views on politics and pushed for constitutional government, this is not wrong," he said.

The official media may overlook him and block him, but "the people will not forget him and history will not forget him", said Mr Wu.

"He is being buried for the moment, but there will be a day when he will see the light again."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2017, with the headline 'Liu Xiaobo's ideals will live on after his death'. Print Edition | Subscribe