ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo has died of liver cancer. He was 61. He died on medical parole while serving an 11-year prison sentence for subversion. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has more from Beijing.
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: By the time Liu was diagnosed in May, his liver cancer was already in its late stages. China's government insisted it was giving Liu good medical care, but it rejected foreign governments' calls for him to be allowed to seek treatment overseas. Liu's biographer and friend, the U.S.-based dissident Yu Jie, argues that China's government feared Liu getting out of jail alive.
YU JIE: (Through interpreter) Because once his sentence is up and he gets out, he would become a standard bearer for China's democratization and civil society.
KUHN: During the 1980s, Liu was a lecturer at Beijing Normal University, a scathing literary critic and a dissident even among dissidents. Princeton China scholar Perry Link translated Liu's works into English.
PERRY LINK: And he was known then as a rebel, the black horse of the literary scene. And he took on just about everybody else and made fun of them and debunked them.
KUHN: Yu Jie says he was especially good at debunking Chinese intellectuals who claimed to be liberals.
YU: (Through interpreter) He perceptively discovered and criticized traces of the Communist Party's education and brainwashing in them.
KUHN: When the Tiananmen Square democracy movement broke out in 1989, Liu flew back from New York where he was a visiting scholar at Columbia University. He led a hunger strike whose aim, he said, was to compel both the government and the student protesters to reflect on their own behavior. Here he is on June 3, 1989, speaking to the students through a bullhorn in a clip from the 1995 documentary "The Gate Of Heavenly Peace."
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE GATE OF HEAVENLY PEACE")
LIU XIAOBO: (Through interpreter) A major problem with the student movement is that it is obsessed with opposing the government but unconcerned with practicing democratic principles in its own ranks. To replace a military dictatorship with a student dictatorship would hardly be a victory. It would be a tragic failure.
KUHN: In the early hours of June 4, as soldiers gunned down protesters, Liu negotiated with the military to let the remaining students leave the square unharmed. For his role in the movement Liu was jailed for 21 months, his first of four stints in prison. His final stint came in 2009. That was for his role in drafting a call for political reform known as Charter 08. Perry Link says China's leaders particularly objected to one item in the charter.
LINK: That item of ending one-party dictatorship stuck in their craw. That's my feeling.
KUHN: Liu Xiaobo was not the charter's main author, but he drew the heaviest punishment. In 2010 in Norway, the Nobel committee placed Liu's prize on an empty chair to symbolize his absence. Yu Jie describes Liu's reaction.
YU: (Through interpreter) When his wife went to prison to tell him the news, his first reaction was not happiness or pride. He said the prize was for the Tiananmen generation and for the students who had died.
KUHN: China state media have described Liu as a Western stooge and his Nobel Prize a sign of the West's prejudice towards China. But Perry Link says that Liu was able to transcend politics. He says it came to him in a sort of revelation on a visit one day to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
LINK: He realized in that great museum how the big problems of humanity are not really East versus West. They're broader and they're more sort of existential than that.
KUHN: In a public statement written on the day of his trial, Liu brimmed with confidence that the rule of law and human rights would one day prevail in China. For now Liu Xiaobo remains largely unknown in his own country, and his name has been erased from the country's media and Internet. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.
(SOUNDBITE OF TEA LEAF GREEN'S "ASPHALT FUNK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.