I was sitting in my dorm room in Taiwan on a warm autumn day in 2009 when I found out that President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. Little did I know that, a year later, someone living just 80 miles away would receive that very same honor.
Liu Xiaobo (Xiaobo is his first name) is just one of many Chinese, both in China and abroad, who has worked tirelessly to create a freer China. The Chinese people are aware that, while economic progress has skyrocketed for many, social progress has only inched forward for most. Therefore, on the U.N.’s Human Rights Day in 2008, hundreds of activists (which quickly grew into the thousands) signed Charter ’08, a declaration advocating for social and political reforms.
These activists call for reforms that you and I in the U.S. assume to be a given, one of which is freedom of religion. In China, any person of faith – whether Buddhist, Muslim, or Christian – faces constant harassment from both local authorities and those in Beijing. These range from being followed by plainclothes police officers and being passed over for a job promotion to being prohibited from fasting during Ramadan and having your home church torn down overnight. In extreme cases, authorities can arrest anyone they deem to be a “threat to national security”: and being religious in an atheistic society is reason enough.
Something as harmless as signing a petition that the government was never going to take seriously was enough of a reason for the Chinese Communist Party to arrest Xiaobo.
In a dark twist of irony, the authorities sentenced Xiaobo to 11 years in prison on Christmas Day 2009. On that day, I was back in California already, enjoying the warmth of a fireplace and a feast on the table surrounded by loved ones. Meanwhile, half a world away, Xiaobo was torn from his wife – who has been under house arrest ever since – to spend more than a decade in a cold, isolated prison cell, likely subject to much torture.
The world seemed to have forgotten about him until several weeks ago, when the authorities released him from prison due to cancer. However, they would not let him leave the country to seek medical care. As a result, Xiaobo died soon thereafter.
I am taking just a moment today to pray for Xiaobo and his wife. And even though the authorities in Beijing have chosen to be more like Kim Jong-un than Abraham Lincoln, I am praying for them as well, because “China’s dream should not be a show of military might; China’s dream should incorporate Mr. Liu Xiaobo’s dream — implementation of democracy, allowing every Chinese person to enjoy freedom and dignity and making China a country everyone can be proud of,” as the President of Taiwan said in her statement on Xiaobo’s death.
At a prayer service a week before Xiaobo’s death, Joseph Cardinal Zen, the ever-provocative former bishop of Hong Kong, compared Xiaobo to the Prophet Jeremiah. Cardinal Zen said, “You are like the sheep waiting to be killed. We have begged God’s justice for you. But your wisdom reminded us the mission of a prophet naturally includes suffering. We dedicate you and your wife to God for the renewal of our country.”
Xiaobo is truly a person who has offered his life (oblatio vitae) in the struggle to improve the life of the average person in China. Though not a Christian, his life shares a similarity with the life and mission of Jesus: his life demonstrates what it means to be a suffering servant, engaging in a seemingly quixotic quest ending his life with little tangible results. And for those of us who are Christians, we have the hope of the Resurrection that one day, the 12 million Catholics in China will be able to live out our faith as freely as Jesus calls us to live.