by The Editorial Board , USA TODAY
Liu Xiaobo in Beijing, China.
Many say great heroes in the struggle for freedom have come and gone, that their martyrdom is now something for history and textbooks, figures like Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln.
That’s just not true.
On Thursday, in a university hospital room in the Chinese city of Shenyang, some 400 miles northeast of Beijing, this nation of 1.4 billion people lost Liu Xiaobo, an imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate and China’s most famous human rights hero. The diagnosis of Liu’s liver cancer had been delayed by Chinese authorities until it was too advanced for meaningful treatment. “Can’t operate, can’t do radiotherapy, can’t do chemotherapy,” his house-arrested wife, Liu Xia, said.
Even then, the 61-year-old Liu was kept under constant guard in the hospital and denied last-minute medical transfer to advanced care in Germany or the U.S. The government of Chinese President Xi Jinping succeeded in its vigilance — and fears — at keeping Liu from speaking out, even frail and failing on his deathbed.
China has earned a terrible place in history through its actions. Nazi Germany was the last regime to hold a Nobel Peace Prize laureate in custody until death, the German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who died of maltreatment in 1938.
The revered activist Liu had committed his life to freedom, leaving a visiting scholarship in America to join protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989, where he held a hunger strike in solidarity with students. Liu negotiated free passage out of the square after the shooting started, saving students’ lives.
He spent 21 months in prison for that, losing his lecturing position. Later, despite chances to leave China, Liu remained. In 2008, he was the first to sign a brazen manifesto calling for broader freedoms in China. In response, he was sentenced in 2009 to 11 years in prison.
While he was locked away, China continued its growth into a global power under Xi’s leadership. The country has become so critical on the world stage that presidents Barack Obama and Trump, with other world leaders, shrank from publicly defending Liu. Even Thursday, hours after the activist died, Trump stood before reporters praising Xi, saying he is a “great man. He’s a fine person. … He loves China. He wants to do what’s right for China.”
There is nothing great about an authoritarian leader who persecutes a man of peace to death. And it was Liu Xiaobo who loved China and wanted to do right by it. So powerful was his vision, that Liu would have been the first to say that his own death is merely a pause in that quest.
“I firmly believe that China’s political progress will not stop,” Liu said in a statement before his imprisonment. “There is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme.”
On that day, China will be great.