Tiananmen protest leader Wu’er Kaixi said negligence from China and the world led to Liu Xiaobo’s death.
New Delhi: On the day that his mentor and advisor died under state supervision, Wu’er Kaixi, one of China’s most wanted dissidents and student leader of the Tiananmen Square movement, is in mourning, but also furious. He not only accused the Chinese government of “murdering” Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, but also charged Western countries with being Beijing’s “accomplice”.
It was on Thursday night that the Justice Bureau of Shenyang announced on its website that Liu died from multiple organ failure as a result of late stage liver cancer. There was no mention of his 2010 Nobel peace prize awarded in absentia. The notice only described him as “Liu Xiaobo, male, 61 years old” who had been sentenced to 11 years on December 23, 2009 for “inciting subversion of state power”.
Within an hour of the news spreading across the world, Wu’er posted on his Twitter about a “new date” to remember “devastation, fury, disgust, despair”, but also “freedom, dreams and hope for China”. “In Taipei in exile, sobbing, angry, but not beat, still despise, still without fear!” he tweeted on the social media platform which is banned in China.
“I am devastated,” he told The Wire on the phone from Taiwan.
It was for one month in the summer of 1989 that Liu, a 33-year-old lecturer at that time, became advisor to Wu’er, a 21-year-old Uighur student at Beijing Normal University, who was one of the top student leaders – and it changed their lives.
“He was very famous scholar and I had always wanted to meet him when I went to Beijing Normal University, where he taught,” he said.
Liu was at Columbia University when the student movement had started to coalesce. “He left China to go to the US because his thoughts were very upsetting and challenging to the Chinese regime. Many people had warned him that it was becoming dangerous for him,” Wu’er said.
But when students were organising rallies and marches across China, he couldn’t keep himself away. “When he came back, he was looking for the student leaders and then he found me, since we are in the same university,” said Wu’er.
After the news of Liu’s death, Wu’er published an online essay on his memories. It included a black and white photograph taken by an American journalist of Liu addressing students, with Wu’er sitting close to him on the ground, as everyone listened raptly.
For Wu’er, Liu’s imprint was inescapable. “All the concepts of democracy were academic to me earlier. He brought alive ideas of democracy in a very graphic way for me in that month.”
Asked to describe an archetypal memory of Lie from those days, he struggled. “It is hard to find one image, because we were very close, together nearly every day. He is the person who taught me a lot of important values. He had a very close association with me. We were like family,” he said.
Giving credit to Liu for shaping him as a student leader, Wu’er became one of the best-known faces of the student movement, especially after he publicly confronted then Premier Li Peng in front of cameras.
He remembers Liu as a “diehard libertarian”, “a very generous man” and an “extremely patient” person, who strictly believed in peaceful means to bring democracy to China.
“Most important, he had a very strong belief in freedom… He didn’t mind sacrificing his life for this belief,” said Wu’er.
He added that Liu may not, however, have anticipated that he would have to pay a price for his beliefs. “When a person says that they are willing to sacrifice their life, what they are saying is that they are willing to sacrifice their life for something. They are really talking about the value of that something… not really thinking about death,” Wu’er told The Wire.
As it became clear that the government was going to crack down on the students at Tiananmen square, Liu stayed on till the end, persuading many of them to leave and saving lives.
Liu was arrested soon after, spending 21 months in jail. He was fired from his lecturer job and when he came out, he had “lost the right to speak publicly in my own country and could only speak through the foreign media”.
A week after the June 4 crackdown, Chinese authorities released a list of the most wanted 21 students which were aired repeated on TV and posted in newspapers. Wu’er’s name and image was at number 2.
After running from the law for ten days, Wu’er escaped to Hong Kong and moved to France, before landing in the US. He studied in Harvard for a year and then moved to the Dominican University of California in San Rafael.
The last time that he met his mentor was in the US when Liu came for a visit in 1992. The anger and the sadness from 1989 were still raw three years later. Wu’er remembers the meeting clearly:
“I cooked dinner. I had bought some erguotou, his favourite drink. Halfway through dinner, the conversation lapsed and perhaps 30 seconds of silence followed – and then he started to sob. It was the horrifying tears of a bereft child, an outburst of pure emotion. My girlfriend of the time ran away and Liu Xiaobo and I were left together. When he recovered, we did not speak about the tears.
We went back to eating.
Then he said something. He said, “One day if we have power, we have to remind ourselves to be humble about that power.”
I said, “Of course,” but I knew they were words I would think about for the rest of my life.”
Wu’er went to live in Taiwan and raised a family, remaining one of the most outspoken Chinese dissidents abroad. Since then, he has tried to return to China multiple times – but was either deported from Chinese territory or turned back from Chinese embassies.
Liu returned to China, remaining active in human rights movements. He was placed under house arrest for around six months in 1995 and then was sentenced for three years in a labour camp for appealing for a ‘reassessment’ of the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
He was arrested for the last time in December 2008, just a couple of days before the release of ‘Charter 08’ – a petition initiated by Liu demanding the end of one party rule and advocating freedom of expression. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison in December 2009. He was not allowed to read out a statement at the trial, but his words found a larger audience at the award ceremony for the Nobel peace prize in 2010 in Oslo.
After over six years, he was released on medical parole in late June after it was revealed that Liu had liver cancer.
From Taiwan, Wu’er and his fellow student leader Wang Dan – who was number 1 on the list – issued a joint statement calling for Liu to be moved abroad immediately.
It was too late to fix Liu’s deteriorating medical condition. On July 13, Liu became the second Nobel peace prize laureate to die in custody, after Carl Von Ossietzky in 1938.
Wu’er is clear on the blame – not just the Chinese government, but also Western countries who have been conspicuously subdued in their responses to news about Liu’s medical condition.
“I called the Chinese government a murderer. They killed him in broad daylight. But Western countries and democracies could have done much more to prevent this. In deciding to go for the Chinese market, they decided to neglect democracy and freedom,” he told The Wire, his voice rising in outrage.
The signal to the Chinese government was to “go ahead, do whatever want, we don’t care”. “They have become accomplice to his murder,” Wu’er said. “The Chinese government who the one to pull the trigger, no doubt, but everybody in the world, who allowed them to do so, shares the blame.”
He particularly named George H.W. Bush, who was US president at the time of the Tiananmen incident. The US administration imposed some sanctions against China in 1989, but they were largely limited. Later in his term, Bush Senior attempted to repair the relationship with Beijing by sending senior cabinet officials for a visit.
Wu’er said that the geopolitical power equation at the time was tilted more sharply towards the US, giving Washington the space to take a tougher position on China. “Bush senior was in the position to push China.. and he decided that not only was the US going appease China, he made the whole West go with that policy,” he said angrily.
He was also highly disapproving of the studied silence from India on the pro-democracy movement in China.
During that period, India was keen to keep the momentum in the relationship imparted by Rajiv Gandhi’s visit in December 1988 at a steady pace. There were frequent exchange of high-level visits in 1989, including throughout the April-June turmoil in Beijing. With Doordarshan and AIR being the only source of news, it was much easier for the government to control the coverage of the Tiananmen Square onslaught. In July 1989, India and China also held the first meeting of the joint working group on the boundary question.
“It is expected, India being a democracy, to take the responsibility that comes with it…India is one of the largest countries by size, by population, but when it comes to world responsibility, to acting on conscience, to standing up to China, India is no big country,” Wu’er said.
Last year, the government had allowed a US-based group led by a Chinese dissident to organise a conference of pro-democracy and minority activists in Dharamshala. But at the last minute, India revoked and denied visas for several participants.
“India is afraid of China. There is no other way to describe this simple fact. The Indian government is afraid of China,” asserted Wu’er.
Sharply criticising India for the visa cancellations, he told The Wire, “When the Indian government denies visas to dissidents, they are also suppressing dissent”. “I feel sorry for Indian people. You deserve a regime that represents the country of your size, instead you have a government with the mind of a chicken,” he added disparagingly.
Meanwhile, Wu’er continued to be overwhelmed with an enormous sense of loss. Now being one of the most visible faces of the 1989 movement, he also felt a big responsibility to keep alive Liu’s dreams.
“Yes. it is a personal duty that I feel.. a mission.. and guilt that I being a survivor that I need to carry on and realise the dreams of fallen classmates of mine,” he said.
These words were almost an echo of his video message smuggled out while he was in hiding in Hong Kong, calling on others to live up to “responsibility to those who died”.
Asked if he still has any hope of change in China, Wu’er answered, quietly, “Of course, I am in exile. I have been living in exile for 28 years… I wouldn’t have been able to survive if I didn’t have hope”.