China's Jailed Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo Dies From Cancer

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  • The writer was China’s most prominent political prisoner
  • Activist called for direct elections, freedom to assemble

Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese Nobel Peace Prize-winner jailed for advocating an end to one-party rule, died from complications related to cancer after an international push failed to secure his treatment overseas.

The 61-year-old author and former university lecturer was treated at the No. 1 Hospital of Chinese Medical University in the northeastern city of Shenyang, where authorities transferred him last month after his condition worsened. He’s the first Nobel laureate to die under guard since pacifist and Nazism critic Carl von Ossietzky’s death in Germany in 1938.

Liu suffered multiple organ failure, the Shenyang Bureau of Justice said late Thursday on its website.

A portrait of Liu Xiaobo is displayed at an exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo in 2010.

Photographer: Berit Roald/AFP via Getty Images

The Nobel Peace Prize -- awarded to Liu in absentia in 2010 -- made him China’s most prominent political prisoner, infuriated Beijing and fueled an international outcry for his release.

“It is our deep conviction that Liu Xiaobo will remain a powerful symbol for all who fight for freedom, democracy and a better world,” Berit Reiss-Andersen, head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said Thursday in a statement on its website. She said “the Chinese government bears a heavy responsibility for his premature death” because he wasn’t given adequate treatment.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement that Liu “dedicated his life to the betterment of his country and humankind” and “died while serving a lengthy prison sentence in China for promoting peaceful democratic reform.”

President Donald Trump made no mention of Liu’s death at a news conference Thursday in Paris, where he praised China’s President Xi Jinping as “a friend of mine” and “a very good man.” Later, the White House issued a statement saying Trump was “deeply saddened” to learn of Liu’s death and called him a “courageous advocate.”

Struggle for Democracy

The Nobel award was only one milestone in a struggle for democracy that stretched back to the Tiananmen protests in 1989 and included three lengthy stints behind bars. 

“Time and again they tried to silence him, and time and again they failed,” Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty said in statement, calling Liu a “giant of human rights.” “Despite enduring years of persecution, suppression and imprisonment, Liu Xiaobo continued to fight for his convictions.”

He is survived by his wife, the poet Liu Xia, who has been held under house arrest in their Beijing apartment since his 2009 conviction for inciting subversion of state power. Tillerson called for China to release her and let her leave the country.

Liu’s 11-year prison sentence stemmed from his role co-authoring “Charter 08,” a political manifesto calling for direct elections and the right to freedom of assembly. 

The document was signed by more than 300 lawyers, academics and activists and spread quickly across China’s internet, then less tightly controlled.

The empty chair for Liu Xiaobo stands at the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony in 2010.

Photographer: Heiko Junge/AFP via Getty Images

“I hope that I will be the last victim of China’s endless literary inquisitions and that from now on no one will be incriminated because of speech,” Liu said at his December 2009 trial. The Norwegian Nobel committee cited his “his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China” in its citation for the award.

In response, China suspended ties with Norway and froze free-trade talks, hurting sales of Norwegian salmon in the world’s most populous country. The two nations only mended fences last year.

China’s crackdowns on political dissent have continued, including campaigns under President Xi against human-rights lawyers and prominent internet commentators. Some 1,433 political and religious dissidents were imprisoned in the country as of October, according to the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China, which said “considerably more” cases have probably not been reported.

Liu Xiaobo receiving medical treatment.

Source: Kyodo News via Getty Images

Last month, Liu was granted medical parole after being diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer and sent to a university hospital in Liaoning province. China didn’t respond to calls to let him seek treatment overseas -- including from German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad -- calling the case a domestic matter.

Doctors from the Chinese hospital said in a rare media briefing that Liu died "peacefully" and that his family members expressed gratitude for his treatment. In a statement, the hospital said that a suspicious mass was found on Liu’s liver in a checkup on May 31, and he was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer that had already metastasized throughout his body.

Early Life

Liu was born Dec. 28, 1955, in Changchun city, in the northeastern province of Jilin. After the turmoil of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, he became a professor of Chinese literature and studied as a visiting scholar at Columbia University.

He returned to China in 1989 to join student demonstrators who had occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing and was afterward kept in police custody for 21 months without trial for “counterrevolutionary” activities. He was sent to a labor camp for three years in 1996, the same year he married Liu Xia.

“Liu Xiaobo is one of China’s most prominent prisoners of conscience,” the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader and fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said in a statement last month. “I was personally moved as well as encouraged when hundreds of Chinese intellectuals and concerned citizens, inspired by Liu Xiaobo, signed ‘Charter 08’ calling for democracy, freedom and rule of law in China.”

— With assistance by Keith Zhai, Jonas O Bergman, and Ken Wills

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