A year ago, the remains of Liu Xiaobo were scattered in the Yellow Sea. Over the decades, many gallant Chinese have spoken up for individual rights and government accountability, but Liu stood out for his systematic critique of China’s government, as well as his moderation and advocacy of nonviolent protest. It is no wonder that he was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, or that his death was an enormous loss for China’s ziyoupai, or “freedom faction.”
The sense of helplessness among Liu’s supporters was compounded by the grotesque series of events that led up to his death from liver cancer. The authorities had constantly assured the world that he was being treated fairly. Yet he was only transferred to a guarded hospital ward a month before he died—presumably to avoid the charge that the regime had allowed a Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in prison. Foreign doctors were brought in, but only in his last few days. The government released strangely voyeuristic videos and photos showing his painfully distraught wife, the artist Liu Xia, at his bedside. After Liu died, his estranged brother, who years earlier had allied himself with the Communist Party, was shown thanking the party and saying that everything possible had been done.
Most of this was for foreign consumption. Domestically, the flow of information was more controlled. Liu’s prison issued a few terse statements on his illness, care, and death, but his thoughts and writings are impossible to find through any normal channel. A year later, despite the release in July of Liu Xia to Germany, one can argue that Liu is a nonperson in China—of interest only to a few thousand dissidents. One might imagine that when they die, he too will die in the public memory, commemorated only by foreign human rights groups and studied by academics interested in turn-of-the-century Chinese thought and politics.
And yet memory can be miraculously persistent. This is a major theme in Blood Letters, an important new biography of Lin Zhao, the journalist who was executed fifty years ago this spring for criticizing the Communist Party’s misrule in the 1950s and 1960s. After years of imprisonment, torture, and mental deterioration, she was hauled out of the prison hospital where she had shriveled to seventy pounds, taken to a thousand-seat prison auditorium in her hospital gown, gagged with a rubber ball, sentenced to death, and shot. Her mother learned the news from a messenger; a few days later, law enforcement demanded from her five cents to cover the cost of the bullet.
Sustained by her Christian faith, Lin wrote hundreds of thousands of words in prison, but all were confiscated and locked away. Yet her writings somehow survived and slowly spread, despite censorship. Today she is counted as one of the most…
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