When some of the very few Chinese who can see international news services in four-star hotels saw their screens go black for six minutes yesterday, they knew: Liu Xiaobo had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Mr. Liu is 54, a writer who became a dissident because, as he said, "an honest writer must live by his words." In his essay, Philosophy of the Pig, he praises ordinary citizens who challenge China’s totalitarian rule, and castigates intellectuals who, he says, "feel brave because the government lets them write about sex, incest and human defects. In China, everybody has the courage to shamelessly challenge morals. Rare are those who have the courage to challenge reality."
He's given his life to a cause, but kept a human touch. When Mr. Liu was a leader of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, he negotiated with the Chinese military, which had run over protesters, to give students a chance to leave the square before they could be killed.
He has been in prison for seven of the last 20 years, convicted of calling for free speech, democracy and independent courts in China, where that’s called subversion.
The Nobel Peace Prize makes Liu Xiaobo a symbol. But this week, I was struck by utterly personal words Mr. Liu wrote when was sentenced to 11 years in prison last year. They are the words of a man who doesn't seek to be a symbol, but a full, warm-blooded human being who craves, as W.H. Auden once wrote, what we all do: "Not universal love/But to be loved alone."
He writes to his wife, the painter Liu Xia, and says:
Sweetheart ... I am sentenced to a visible prison while you are waiting in an invisible one. Your love is sunlight that transcends prison walls and bars, stroking every inch of my skin, warming my cell, letting me maintain my inner calm, magnanimous and bright, so that every minute in prison is full of meaning.
Given your love, sweetheart, I look forward to my country being a land of free expression, where ... all views will be spread in the sunlight for people to choose without fear. I hope to be the last victim.
I am a hard stone in the wilderness, putting up with the pummeling of raging storms, and too cold for anyone to dare touch. But my love is hard, sharp, and can penetrate any obstacles. Even if I am crushed into powder, I will embrace you with the ashes.
The Chinese government has not just locked up a symbol named Liu Xiaobo, but a human being who cannot hold those he loves.