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Prominent dissident Liu Xiaobo, the only Chinese citizen to be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize while still residing in China, has died at age 61. Liu died Thursday while on medical parole in northeastern China’s Shenyang city, where he was being treated for liver cancer. He was serving an 11-year prison sentence for trying to overthrow the government.
By the time Liu, a scholar and human rights advocate, was diagnosed in late May, his liver cancer was already in its late stages. Chinese authorities released video footage intended to show that Liu had been receiving good medical care, and they invited U.S. and German doctors to treat him. But Beijing rejected calls to allow him to seek treatment overseas.
Liu’s biographer and friend, the U.S.-based dissident Yu Jie, believes that China’s government had a motive to withhold or delay treatment: It feared the consequences of Liu getting out of prison alive.
In that case, Yu says, “he would [have] become a standard-bearer for China’s democratization and civil society.”
Liu was born in 1955 in northeastern China’s Changchun city, a center of heavy industry. He spent his teenage years in the countryside during the 1966 to 1976 Cultural Revolution and was admitted to college in 1977, as universities reopened following the decade of chaos.
In 1988, Liu received his doctorate in literature from Beijing Normal University, and he stayed on to work as a lecturer and literary critic.
“He was known then as a rebel, the black horse of the literary scene,” says Perry Link,a China scholar at Princeton and the University of California, Riverside who has translated Liu’s works into English. “And he took on just about everybody else and made fun of them and debunked them.”
Yu says Liu was especially good at debunking Chinese intellectuals who claimed to be liberals. “He perceptively discovered and criticized traces of the Communist Party’s education and brainwashing in them,” he says.
When the Tiananmen Square democracy movement broke out in 1989, Liu flew back to Beijing from New York, where he was a visiting scholar at Columbia University.
Along with three other protest leaders, Liu led a hunger strike in the heart of the square. Its aim, he said, was to compel both the government and the student protesters to reflect on their own behavior.