SFU department of history hosts a conversation on Liu Xiaobo

The lecture is the final lecture in the SFU History 2020-21 public lecture series, Witnesses to History

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Photo Courtesy of SFU

Written by: Kelly Chia, Staff Writer

On May 27, 2021, SFU hosted an event featuring professors Jeremy Brown and Perry Link in a conversation. They discussed Link’s forthcoming biography, co-authored by Wu Dazhi. It is about Liu Xiaobo, a figure of political liberation in China. Liu won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 for his defense of human rights and died in 2017 while serving eleven years of imprisonment for subverting state authorities. 

This is the final lecture in the series Witnesses to History — the SFU department of history’s annual public lecture series. The series “focuses on eyewitness accounts and testimonies, and their importance of telling the stories of the past.”

“Liu Xiaobo is bigger than this world generally gives him credit for,” Link said. “He came up with a non-violent philosophy for bringing about social and political change that — in my view — ranks with Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi.” Link said Liu’s goal was to change the regime through society by looking at “ordinary people with daily life problems.” He explained it was different from dialogue in the ‘80’s, as people wanted societal change among government authorities.

Co-author Wu Dazhi knew Liu personally. “They started working together in the early 2000s on what they called [ . . . ] Charter 08,” Link explained.

Charter 08 was a manifesto that advocated for “the gradual shifting of China’s political and legal system in the direction of democracy.” It called for a constitutional amendment that guaranteed human rights as “China’s successive political disasters have all been closely related to the disregard for human rights by the ruling establishment.” 

It was signed by 10,000 dissidents and human rights activists in and outside of China. Liu’s involvement resulted in his arrest in 2008

When Link approached Wu, he did not know enough to write the biography. Similarly, Wu did not know enough English for the project. Thus, Wu sent Link chapters to translate and edit. “She was the content provider and I was the carpenter, if I can put it that way,” Link said.

After criticizing China’s one-party system, Liu served two years in a labour camp and exited in 1999, where his friends said he became decidedly more empathetic. “This is reflected in his philosophy, where his goal is to change the regime.” 

Link noted the landscape for opposition is worse than it was a decade ago because of heavy surveillance culture. “The budget for maintaining what’s called — or maintaining stability — in China is bigger than the national defense budget. 

“If you started to cause trouble, for example, if you signed Charter 08 even though you weren’t a ‘mover or shaker,’ this system would come to you and the police [would] invite you to tea.” The police would then ask people to consider their safety and their family’s safety. Otherwise, they would be at risk of imprisonment, Link explained.

“There are no opposition ‘parties’ in China,” Link said in an interview with The Peak. He explained, “the current top leader, Xi Jinping, is using old means of repression” to stop opposition early on. He added that old repression referred to Mao, and new repression takes the form of technology. 

Link and Wu hope that with the release of the biography, people will uphold Liu as a leader of thought. Link and Wu are considering naming the biography Long March Toward Freedom. This is “an echo of Nelson Mandela’s book, Slow Walk to Freedom.” Replacing “to” with “toward” showed how Liu didn’t get to freedom as Mandela did, they explained.

Link, professor emeritus of East Asian studies at Princeton University has authored several books on Chinese language, literature, popular culture, and dissidence. The interview and lecture can be viewed here on YouTube.