Dear Liu Xiaobo,
You may be the man I most admire. For decades you’ve struggled and suffered to advance human liberty, at the cost of your own – and now, it seems, at the cost of your life.
You won the Nobel Peace Prize and are the Mandela of our age, but with a horrifyingly different ending. While Nelson Mandela eventually became South Africa’s president, you were recently moved from a Chinese prison to a hospital where you remain under guard. Your wife says your liver cancer is inoperable, and the Chinese government cruelly refused to allow you to go abroad for treatment to try to save your life.
I’m writing this open letter partly to appeal to President Xi Jinping to allow you to travel for treatment. But I’m also writing this because I think we in the “mature” Western democracies have a lot to learn from you.
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As a journalist, I see so much spin, preening, hypocrisy – but in your prison cell, you embody democratic values more honestly and passionately than the leaders of our democratic countries.
I must say, I wonder what you make of how we in the West have handled our freedoms. You’ve sacrificed your entire life to achieve liberty. But is your faith in democracy rattled at all by Donald Trump’s tweets?
I first encountered you when my wife and I moved to China in the 1980s. You rushed back from a visiting scholar position at Columbia University to join the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement and quickly became a leading figure in it.
When the Chinese army opened fire on protesters to crush the movement, you could have fled. Instead, at tremendous risk to yourself, you negotiated with the army to arrange safe passage for hundreds of student protesters gathered at the monument in the center of Tiananmen Square.
Some of the students wanted to stay and die if necessary, but you cajoled them to retreat and live another day. You averted a blood bath – but you were arrested and disappeared into the maw of Qincheng Prison for almost two years.
You then could have relocated safely abroad in the 1990s, but you chose not to. Instead, you continued to push for freedom – and so you went to prison again.
After being freed, in 2008 you helped draft a moderate, eminently reasonable document calling for democracy and liberty, and that’s the last time I spoke to you.
I was in Beijing and called your home to arrange a visit. You answered the phone, but as soon as I identified myself in Chinese, a State Security Ministry minder cut off the call and put your phone line out of commission.
Soon afterward, you were imprisoned and sentenced to 11 years. The government began to persecute your wife, Liu Xia, as a way to put pressure on you.
I remember the incredible love letter you once wrote her: “Your love is the sunlight that leaps over high walls and penetrates the iron bars of my prison window, stroking every inch of my skin, warming every cell of my body … and filling every minute of my time in prison with meaning.”
You’ve often spoken about what China can learn from the West. But, frankly, we in the West can learn so much from you – even about the meaning of democracy.
First, you preach the virtues of moderation and compromise, which many of us are now too stressed to remember. At a time when many of us see conciliation as a sign of weakness, you remind us that politics is about listening and getting things done. That’s how you saved all those lives at Tiananmen.
Second, you think beyond your tribe. You bravely signed a petition calling for more autonomy for Tibet, and for real negotiations with the Dalai Lama, although reflexive Chinese nationalism made that deeply unpopular. Pushing back at public opinion took moral courage, of a kind I wish more of our own leaders displayed.
Third, you model magnanimity in politics, showing a willingness to “go high” even when the regime treats you and your wife so monstrously.
We Americans have tumbled in the opposite direction, vilifying those with whom we disagree; a growing share of us would object if a child sought to wed someone from the other political party. You would be entirely justified in feeling malice, yet you declared, “I have no enemies,” and you went out of your way to speak fondly of your prosecutors.
“Hatred can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience,” you explained from your prison cell. You warned that an “enemy mentality” can “destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity.”
In Chinese, you’re sometimes known as “Teacher Liu,” and we – your students – are hoping and praying that you find comfort in the way your sacrifices have left a mark on all of us. You truly are a teacher to the world.