BEIJING – As tributes rolled in Friday to mourn China’s most famous political prisoner, a newspaper published by the ruling Communist Party dismissed late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo as a pawn of the West whose legacy will soon fade.
The newspaper’s editorial marked a rare mention of Liu in the Chinese-language media, possibly indicating a desire to guide popular opinion amid widespread reporting of his death in the overseas press and on social media platforms such as Twitter that are blocked in China.
Liu died Thursday of liver cancer while serving an 11-year sentence for incitement to subvert state power. He was 61.
Liu lived a “tragic life” because he sought to confront Chinese mainstream society with outside support, The Global Times said in its editorial headlined, “Liu Xiaobo a victim led astray by West.”
“Liu’s last days were politicized by the forces overseas. They used Liu’s illness as a tool to boost their image and demonize China,” the paper said.
“The West has bestowed upon Liu a halo, which will not linger,” it said. “By granting him the Nobel Prize, the West has ‘kidnapped’ Liu. However, the West only puts a halo on those useful to them.”
While Liu did have considerable renown abroad – official censorship made him virtually a non-person at home – the party frequently uses the specter of Western manipulate to demonize its critics.
“Liu lived in an era when China witnessed the most rapid growth in recent history, but he attempted to confront Chinese mainstream society under Western support. This has determined his tragic life,” the paper continued. “If he could live longer, he would never have achieved political goals that are in opposition to the path of history.”
President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron were among Western leaders offering praise for Liu. Trump’s spokesman Sean Spicer called Liu a “poet, scholar, and courageous advocate,” who “dedicated his life to the pursuit of democracy and liberty.”
They also urged China to free Liu’s wife, the artist and poet Liu Xia, from the strict house arrest she has lived under for years even though she has not been convicted of any crime.
Responding to such calls early Friday, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang chastised foreign officials for “making improper comments on Liu Xiaobo’s death of illness.”
“China is a country under the rule of law. The handling of Liu Xiaobo’ s case belongs to China’s internal affairs, and foreign countries are in no position to make improper remarks,” Geng said.
Geng’s comments were issued by the ministry’s official social media account. But the statement did not appear on its website, where transcripts of daily news briefings have been scrubbed clean of all mentions of Liu.
Liu rose to prominence during the 1989 pro-democracy protests centered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and became one of hundreds of Chinese imprisoned for crimes linked to the demonstrations after they were crushed by the military. It was the first of four imprisonments.
His last was for co-authoring “Charter 08,” a document circulated in 2008 that called for more freedom of expression, human rights and an independent judiciary.
He was in prison when he was awarded the Nobel in 2010 by a committee that lauded Liu’s “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”
The government condemned the award as political farce, put Liu Xia under house arrest and even suspended a trade deal with Norway to punish the country where the prizes are awarded even though the Norwegian government has no role in the committee’s decisions. Liu’s absence at the prize-giving ceremony in Oslo, Norway, was marked by an empty chair.
In recent days, supporters and foreign governments urged China to allow him to be treated for cancer abroad, but Chinese authorities insisted he was receiving the best care possible.
On Thursday, the Nobel Committee said Beijing bore a heavy responsibility for Liu’s death. But it also leveled harsh criticism at the “free world” for its “hesitant, belated reactions” to his serious illness and imprisonment.
“It is a sad and disturbing fact that the representatives of the free world, who themselves hold democracy and human rights in high regard, are less willing to stand up for those rights for the benefit of others,” said the organization’s chairwoman, Berit Reiss-Andersen.
Liu was only the second Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in prison, a fact pointed to by human rights groups as an indication of the Chinese Communist Party’s increasingly hard line against its critics. The first, Carl von Ossietzky, died from tuberculosis in Germany in 1938 while serving a sentence for opposing Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime.