Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, writer, literary critic and human rights activist spent the last eight years of his life in Jinzhou prison in northeast China, with little or no access to friends, family or colleagues. A former president of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre (ICPC) and an active PEN member, Liu was arrested in December 2009 and charged with ‘inciting subversion of state power’, with a sentence of 11 years in prison.
His wife – the poet and photographer Liu Xia – was only allowed to visit him once a month under the supervision of prison guards. They would be forced to change the subject if they spoke about anything deemed offensive to the state. Liu Xia herself spent almost the entire duration of her husband’s detention under house arrest, held without charge.
Despite this harsh and unjust treatment, Liu Xiaobo’s continuing message to the outside world was one of peace, hope, and love. His poetry – written from within prison – spoke of his love for his wife and his hope for a China free from discrimination and human rights abuses. He used imagery rooted in nature and transformation, and his verse was rhythmic and lyrical.
At the December 2010 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in Oslo, Liu Xiaobo’s medal and diploma were presented to an empty chair. It is a huge sadness to all of us who knew or were influenced by Liu Xiaobo – his resilient activism, his commitment to justice, his optimism and peaceful heart – that he will never have the opportunity to be recognised in person for all that he has done in the service of others. His empty chair was and remains a deep injustice, but just as he was remembered whilst locked behind bars, he will be remembered by us forever.
As well as sending our thoughts and love to Liu Xiaobo’s family, we are calling on the authorities to grant complete freedom of movement to his wife Liu Xia at this difficult time and going forward.
Below, please find statements from PEN President Jennifer Clement, Executive Director Carles Torner, and Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee, as well as a recent message of solidarity from UK Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy.
‘On this sad day I remember the 2010 image of the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjoern Jagland, sitting beside Liu Xiaobo’s medal and diploma on an empty chair – PEN’s symbol for imprisoned writers. On that day the world honoured and celebrated Liu Xiaobo’s courage as it does again today. Liu once said, ‘I hope I will be the last victim in China’s long record of treating words as crimes’. We must continue to uphold his dream.’
– Jennifer Clement, PEN President
‘Jan Patocka wrote that, ‘the real test of a man is not how well he plays the role he has invented for himself, but how well he plays the role that destiny assigned to him.’ Patocka drafted and signed with Havel the Charter 77 and died after a marathon interrogation by Czech Police; he remains the symbol of freedom for Czechs. Dear Liu Xiaobo, dear PEN colleague, you have died today because of the treatment imposed on you by Chinese authorities after you signed the Charter 2008. Your PEN friends around the world will praise your destiny and your commitment, we will praise you every single day until China will be free.’
– Carles Torner, PEN Executive Director
‘In one of your poems, you write of the ‘cold and indifferent moon’. The same sky with this moon in it reaches over all of us, over you and me, over my freedom and your oppression. What we have in common is as various as our differences, but one of thing we share is our belief in the power of writing to challenge those things that limit, oppress, destroy, and deny. I am sorry that you have experienced this denial, this oppression so directly, but I want you to know that – whilst your punishment has attempted to reduce you – in my eyes you are magnified inside your work, your power, your courage, and your love. Thank you for everything you have done in your fight for a better world.’
– Carol Ann Duffy, UK Poet Laureate
‘China’s callous treatment of political prisoners and dissidents reached lower depths today with the tragic passing of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo. Liu, a writer, poet, and democracy campaigner, had committed no crime – he wanted the Chinese Government to respect the dignity of Chinese people and uphold their human rights. But his words threatened the authoritarian regime which attempted to silence him by jailing him. His words will resonate and will continue to inspire millions of people in China and beyond, and he will be remembered long after the unelected men temporarily in power are forgotten and, as Liu dreamed and fought for, China will become a democracy.’
– Salil Tripathi, PEN International Writers in Prison Committee Chair
Join the vigil in London
We will be holding a vigil to mark Liu Xiaobo’s death and to continue calls for his wife Liu Xia to be officially released from house arrest and allowed to travel wherever she chooses. Please join us.
Vigil at the Embassy of China
4.30pm, Friday 14 July
Opposite the Chinese Embassy, 49 Portland Place, London W1B 1JL
Nearest tubes: Great Portland Street, Oxford Circus
Liu Xiaobo – In Memoriam
Share your thoughts, memories and messages via PEN International’s dedicated website. These will be shared with his loved ones in due course.