Liu Xiaobo was innocent, he died for us, says Chinese film maker

Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, considered a dissentient by China for his pro-democracy activism, died of liver cancer on July 13.

world Updated: Jul 16, 2017 22:24 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times, Beijing
Ai Xiaoming,Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo,Beijing Normal University
Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo during an interview in Beijing on July 30, 2008.(AP)

Ai Xiaoming, known in China for her gritty documentary films and as a feminist scholar, was Nobel Laureate and democracy activist Liu Xiaobo’s contemporary at the Beijing Normal University’s (BNU) Chinese department in the 1980s.

Liu, considered a dissentient by China for his pro-democracy activism, was undergoing his fourth stint in prison when he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. He was granted medical parole, but was not allowed to travel abroad for treatment. Liu died in a hospital in Shenyang on July 13, mere weeks after being released from jail.

His wife Liu Xia — under house arrest since 2010 — scattered his ashes after cremation at sea, with the Communist Party of China (CPC) ensuring that there would be no grave on land to serve as a magnet for protests.

Liu Xia prays as Liu Xiaobo's ashes are buried at sea on July 15, 2017. (AFP)

“We were friends, though we were in different majors in the Chinese language department. He was already a radical literary critic then,” Ai said.

Ai also knows a thing or two about living under the watch of the authorities — her films are banned in China and she lives under constant surveillance at her home in Wuhan city.

Her latest documentary, Jiabiangou Elegy: The Death of the Rightists, is on the purge that the CPC carried out in 1957 against those they thought of as “rightists” — broadly speaking, those people the party considered its critics.

Speaking to HT from Wuhan, Ai was frank about her evolving relationship with Liu.

They met in the 1980s and received their doctoral degrees from BNU. Then in 1989, the Tiananmen movement happened, where Liu was a key leader.

“We had sympathy for the students but could not take responsibility of fighting for the students. But Liu was very brave, his behaviour was very brave. He was a very rare intellectual,” Ai said.

Liu was jailed soon after, and their paths didn’t cross for years.

“Our roads (to fighting for political freedom) were different. He was known as the dissident intellectual. I was working from within the system,” Ai said, adding that she moved to Guangzhou where she worked for years as a lecturer on comparative literature and as an independent documentary film maker. She also did a course on women’s and gender studies from the University of South Tennessee.

Ai Xiaoming after Liu Xiaobo was hospitalised. Ai said: “I did this painting with Chinese ink and brush pen. The flowers in the painting are called ‘heaven birds’ and in it, I wrote that I would like to have a heaven bird to fly to the window of the hospital and to see my old friend.” (Ai Xiaoming )

It was after her return to China in early 2000 that Ai began to focus more on human rights and individual freedom.

“Liu saw some my documentaries and we realised we have common goals. We spoke sometimes on Skype over the weekend,” she said.

They never met face-to-face for years but by then, according to Ai, their aims had merged.

Then, she met Liu for the last time. It was at a non-descript Chinese restaurant in Beijing’s Haidian district in October 2008. The food was frugal but the discussion about their goals were lofty.

“It was an ordinary restaurant. We chatted about Charter 08 (a manifesto for political reform and individual freedom). I read the draft, gave a few ideas. We didn’t think it was such a big idea then,” Ai, 64, said.

However, Charter 08 became a big headache for Chinese authorities after it was released two months later — big enough for the government to crackdown on those who signed it. It led to Liu’s arrest under “subversion” charges in 2009 and his wife Liu Xia was put under house arrest soon after.

Picture taken on April 1, 2010, when Ai interviewed Liu Xia. Ai said: “I brought Liu Xia these two Alpacas — one for her, the other for Liu Xiaobo. The Alpaca is used as a metaphor in China — It is a popular way to show a challenging gesture. If you say it aloud, it sounds similar to a swear word.” (Ai Xiaoming )

Despite being closely watched, Ai managed to interview Liu Xia in 2010 and a released a 26-minute version of their interaction.

Last week, she wrote an open letter to the government to allow Liu to go abroad for treatment.

“I hereby call upon the alumni of BNU, Chinese Nobel Laureates, the signatories of Charter 08 and all peace-loving people around the world, to step out and speak up for the Liu Xiaobo, in order to help him realise his last wish — freedom,” Ai wrote.

But Liu’s death wasn’t in vain, she said. “Liu died for us. He was innocent. He was a valuable man. We should remember him,” she said.

First Published: Jul 16, 2017 17:32 IST