Liu Xiaobo’s fate: the painful choice of exile or extermination

 Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia at a hospital in China; source: Associated Press

Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia at a hospital in China; source: Associated Press

The world has been watching whether Chinese Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who has been diagnosed with last-stage liver cancer, will regain some final moments of freedom in order to receive adequate medical treatment abroad. His friend, Liao Yiwu, wrote a moving tribute (Chinese here) during the weekend, stressing Liu’s wish to leave China with his wife and brother-in-law for medical treatment, preferably in Germany with the U.S. as another possible destination.

Liao Yiwu himself is a splendid writer and also a poet. He is alive and active today because, after enduring harsh punishment in China, he made the decision to go into exile in Germany and, like the Chinese who assembled in Washington, DC and other places outside the Mainland July 9th to mark the second anniversary of the start of Xi Jinping’s continuing 709 purge of human rights advocates, he is free to express his views.

The dissimilar fates of Liao and Liu Xiaobo illustrate the painful choice (if they have that choice) that has always confronted civil libertarians from dictatorial regimes – exile or extermination. Ninoy Aquino, Kim Dae-jung, Annette Lu, Ai Weiwei , Chen Guangcheng and so many others have earned our sympathy and support, whatever their ultimate decision.

Many foreign scholars have agonized with and advised those who have had to confront this decision. The 1979 prosecution of Annette Lu in Taiwan under the KMT caused me to write a very long piece in the Wall St Journal, Asia – “A Taiwan Dissident’s Long Road to Prison” – describing the dilemma in particular of foreign students who choose to strengthen their human rights commitments by studying in democratic countries and then face the dilemma of whether and when to return home to dangerous dictatorships.

When on July 15 legal scholar/activist Xu Zhiyong is released from Chinese prison, I hope he will have the choice whether to stay in China or go abroad for a time. It is far more likely that Xi Jinping will decide to continue Xu’s confinement by other means via what should be called “the Non-Release Release” (NRR) that currently keeps so many supposedly “free” ex-human rights prisoners and their families effectively under political restraints.

On a lighter note, Liao Yiwu’s message reminds me of a passionate lecture he gave in Chinese to a packed house at the New School in NY about five years ago during his first American visit. The first questioner asked him: “What do you think of the U.S,?” Liao answered: “ I’ve only been here four days and I’ve spent them all in Flushing.” Undeterred, the questioner said: “So what do you think of Flushing?” Liao flashed a smile and responded: “That’s easy. Flushing is China without Communism!”