Chinese poet and writer Liu Xiaobo knew trouble.
The first was not of his making.
Liu was 11 in 1966 when Mao Zedong’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution ignited. Mao urged his Red Guards to destroy the “four olds” — ideas, customs, habits, and culture, as Mao moved to wipe out all political opposition.
It was brutal and chaotic decade in Chinese history. Schools and universities closed, intellectuals were attacked, their children were snatched and, like Liu, sent to “re-education” camps. The Chinese economy collapsed. Starvation reigned. As many as 2 Million people died.
The dust only settled in 1976 when Mao died.
Despite his lack of formal schooling, Liu went on to earn a Master’s Degree in Chinese literature. As a teacher and writer, he was unwilling to go with the tides. From the start, he stood up for freedom of expression, what Chinese leaders have long denigrated as a “Western value.”
Lui’s grown-up troubles began in 1989.
When student protesters swarmed Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, demanding reform, Liu left a cushy job at Columbia University in New York to stand with them. He joined their hunger strike. When the military crackdown culminated in massacre on June 4, 1989, he negotiated with commanders to allow thousands of students to leave with no further bloodshed.
If not for Liu's efforts, many more young people would have died that bloody June. But because of his leadership role, Liu was fired from his job as a teacher, and his books banned. He was detained, then jailed. Yet, he refused to be silenced. The rest of Liu’s days were spent in a cat and mouse game with the Chinese leadership.
In 2008, Liu Xiaobo co-authored a political manifesto: Charter 08. It called for fundamental political change in China: a new constitution, separation of powers, and the guarantee of such human rights as freedom of expression. Though hundreds signed the Charter, Liu was the only person to be detained.
In 2010, Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, but he wasn’t permitted to attend the ceremony. His medal and diploma were placed on an empty chair — a symbol of Liu's unfair imprisonment.
He remained jailed until his death from liver cancer on 13 July 2017, released only to go to hospital to die.
For 30 years of his 61 years, Liu Xiaobo was a political prisoner. Still, he used his pen to advocate for democratic reform in a country that has been ruled by dictatorship — in one form or another — for centuries.
In China, President Xi Jinping has censored all Internet searches of Liu's name and expunged tributes to his life from social media. Xi wouldn't even allow Liu's body to be buried on Chinese soil.