China’s Orphaned Dissidents

Recent Features


China’s Orphaned Dissidents

Political exiles reckon with a rising China and a lost cause.

China’s Orphaned Dissidents
Credit: Associated Press, Ng Han Guan

The last days of the most prominent Chinese dissident were brief.

In late June, Chinese prison authorities announced that Liu Xiaobo was being given medical parole for treatment of late-stage liver cancer. Two weeks later, he was dead at the age of 61.

For dissidents abroad, like Hu Ping, the loss was devastating. A lodestar had fallen. A democracy activist who left China for Harvard University in 1987, Hu saw Liu as the leading human rights champion among them. Hu twice hosted the future Nobel Peace Prize laureate at his home in the United States before Liu returned to Beijing to lead the mass movement against the government that began at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

“China desperately needs a symbol like Liu Xiaobo, and it will be quite hard to replace him now,” Hu said. “That’s why so many of us were deeply saddened by his passing.”

Mere hours after Chinese prison authorities announced Liu’s death, U.S. President Donald Trump made headlines in a way that only multiplied their anguish.

At a G20 press conference in Paris, Trump called Chinese President Xi Jinping “a terrific guy.” On the same day, he issued a tepid 45-word condolence message, bypassing any mention of Liu’s incarceration.

Human rights activists were dispirited.

Dissidents had lost another pivotal battle against what they perceive as the repressive Chinese Communist Party, which swept to power in 1949 after a bloody civil war and has ruled the country under socialist ideologies since. Beyond their sorrow and indignation, the dissidents confronted an uncomfortable question: What use were they if their voices no longer really mattered to Chinese or foreign leaders?

The answer, Hu said, was sobering.

“The exiles were very optimistic that the Communist Party would collapse soon after Tiananmen because there was huge momentum for a more democratic China in the early ‘90s with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union,” said Hu, the honorary editor-in-chief of the online dissident magazine Beijing Spring. “No one could have foreseen that the Party not only would survive the turmoil but is growing apace globally.”