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Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, jailed for calls for greater democracy, dies at age 61

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Officials denied Novel Peace laureate travel abroad for treatment

China’s most prominent human rights and democracy advocate, Liu Xiaobo, has died.

The 61-year-old Liu, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who was not able to receive his medal in person because he was in a Chinese prison, had been suffering from liver cancer. He won a medical parole from an 11-year prison sentence in June and was being treated in a hospital in northeastern China.

Liu’s 11-year sentence was for “subversion” and followed his action as a co-founder of Charter 08, a petition calling for democracy, the rule of law and an end to censorship.

He was represented at the Nobel ceremony in Stockholm by an empty chair, and the prize committee praised him as “the foremost symbol of this wide-ranging struggle for human rights in China.”

It was not the first time he was jailed, though. He was arrested several other times, including during the 1989 protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, which ended in a violent clampdown.

Born on Dec. 28, 1955, in the northeastern province of Jilin, he studied at Jilin University in Changchun and later taught in Beijing. He became more politically involved as the then-leader of China, Deng Xiaoping, resisted political reforms even as he promoted economic ones.

On a visiting scholarship at Columbia University in 1989, he returned to China’s capital to support the growing “Beijing Spring” movement centered on Tiananmen Square. Though he supported the students’ calls for greater democracy and an end to official corruption in the ruling Communist Party, Liu eventually urged them to return to their campuses.

“As signs grew that the Communist Party leadership would use force to end the protests, Mr. Liu and three friends, including the singer Hou Dejian, held a hunger strike on the square to show solidarity with the students, even as they advised them to leave,” according to the New York Times. His presence helped to prevent a worse massacre than the one that did take place overnight between June 3-4, the paper explained:

When the army moved in, hundreds of protesters died in the gunfire and the chaos on roads leading to Tiananmen Square. But without Mr. Liu and his friends, the bloodshed might have been worse. On the night of June 3, they stayed in the square with thousands of students as tanks, armored vehicles and soldiers closed in.

Mr. Liu and his friends negotiated with the troops to create a safe passage for the remaining protesters to leave the square, and he coaxed the students to flee without a final showdown.

“I understand what you’re feeling, but haven’t you considered how as soon as the first shot rings out, Tiananmen Square will become a river of blood?” Mr. Liu told the students, as he recounted in a memoir published in 1989.

“If he hadn’t been on the scene, I’m sure people would have died on the square. That was his pacifism in action,” said Liu Suli, a friend of Mr. Liu who stayed with him and his friends on Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3. “Xiaobo had a kind of heroism complex that never left him.”

Liu was arrested and spent 21 months in detention for his support of the democracy movement. He later described the whole ordeal as a turning point that ended his academic career and set him irrevocably into a life of political opposition, the Times reported. In 1996, he was sent to a labor camp for three years after demanding clemency for those still in prison for joining the demonstrations.

Even when it was revealed that he had terminal cancer earlier this year, Chinese authorities kept his life tightly controlled, insisting that he was too ill to travel to the West for medical treatment. His wife, Liu Xia, was placed under house arrest. His books remained banned, and most likely will for some time.

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