Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo has died in prison.

The Chinese Communist Party was once a party of conviction, with martyrs prepared to die for their cause, but it’s had nearly 70 years in power to become an ossified and cynical establishment. It imprisons those who demand their constitutional rights, bans all mention of them at home, and uses its economic might abroad to exact silence from foreign governments. Under President Xi, China has pursued this repression with great vigour and success. Liu Xiaobo is a rare defeat.

Beijing’s problem began in 2010 when he won a Nobel Peace Prize. That immediately catapulted Liu Xiaobo into an international A-list of those imprisoned for their beliefs, alongside Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi and Carl von Ossietzky.

The last in that list may be unfamiliar to some, but to Beijing he’s a particularly uncomfortable parallel. Carl von Ossietzky was a German pacifist who won the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize while incarcerated in a concentration camp. Hitler would not allow a member of the laureate’s family to collect the award on his behalf.

Liu Xiaobo was in prison when he won the prize; he was there for “subversion.” The Chinese government wouldn’t let his wife pick up the award and instead put her under house arrest. There was an empty chair for him at the ceremony.

Strict censorship is another shared feature of both cases. Mention of Carl von Ossietzky’s 1935 Nobel peace prize was banned in Nazi Germany and the same is true of Liu Xiaobo’s award in China today. For a time China even banned the search term “empty chair”. So he has been an embarrassment to China internationally, but at home few Chinese are aware of him. Even as foreign doctors contradicted the Chinese hospital on his fitness to travel, and Hong Kong saw vigils demanding his release, blanket censorship in mainland China kept the public largely ignorant of the dying Nobel laureate in their midst.

Comparisons with the human rights record and propaganda efforts of Nazi Germany are particularly dismaying for Beijing after a period in which it feels it has successfully legitimised its one-party state on the world stage. At the G20 summit in Hamburg earlier this month, no world leader publicly challenged President Xi over Liu Xiaobo’s treatment. With China increasingly powerful abroad and punitive at home, there are few voices raised on behalf of its political dissidents.

Certainly the US government isn’t going to raise any voices on the subject.

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