On Thursday the announcement came: Liu Xiaobo, who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, had died at 61 of liver cancer in a hospital in the northeast city of Shenyang. He lived most of the last 30 years of his life under some sort of house arrest, imprisonment, or restraint.
Thanks to tight censorship, most Chinese had no idea Liu had even won the Nobel. China resisted all efforts to free him, or even secure him emergency treatment abroad.
Liu's miserable death reminds us of something true all over the world: It is dangerous to write in the public sphere.
Who's worried? The powerful. Why? They fear the contrary voice, the least shred of contrary fact. They're afraid it'll spread, once out, and the infection of truth will sap their authority. If they can't bully it down, they'll choke it off at the source.
You see it amid the protests in Venezuela, where journalists are routinely harassed, threatened, thrown in jail. You see it throughout the Middle East, and in Somalia, a leading site of such attacks, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Not all these are government-driven; about 40 percent of attacks on journalists are by ISIS or similar extremist groups.
Those in power must surely think writers can change things. Why else would you chase a poet like Pablo Neruda (another Nobel winner) over the mountains, as Chile did in 1948-49 (as recounted in the great movie Neruda)? Why chase down a blogger and hack him to death with machetes, as the Jamaat-e-Islami party did to Ahmed Rajib Haider in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 2015? Why turn 30 years of a man's life into a living prison, as China did to Liu Xiaobo?
(For years in the U.S. academy, you used to hear, again and again, that art and literature change nothing; the best it could do, in this view, was tighten the chains of language and institutional coercion around us. Sounds quaint, I know.)
Our own country is now convulsed over "fake news," "sourceless reporting," and a "failed press." Plenty of yelling. Lots of chest-beating. Eruptions of aggressive words. All that hogwash, though, is actually a good thing, a sign of healthy, vigorous, effective, free media.
Sure, you can bully reporters, or you can at least try. You can mischaracterize what they do, even lie about it. A truly free media world – in which, short of libel, slander, and incitement to break the law, speech is protected – is and always will be messy, confusing, loud, and nasty. To be sure, that can be wearying and sad.
But all that is far from what happened to Liu Xiaobo.
When the Tiananmen Square demonstrations broke out in 1989, he left his safe post as a visiting scholar at Columbia University and hastened back home. At the square, he joined in a hunger strike and tried to head off bloodshed. For his efforts he was thrown into prison, for the rest of his life subject to incarceration, under the government's eye, forbidden to publish in China. (He tried to keep publishing under various names.) He couldn't go to Sweden to receive his Nobel; too busy being in prison.
The Croatian musician and activist Nenad Bach once brought home to me what it was like growing up in the former Yugoslavia.
"Day to day," he said, "life was pretty much the same as it is here. You get up, go to work, do what you do. But in the back of your mind, you know they can take everything away from you, at any time, whenever they want."
That's what they did to Liu Xiaobo. They could have done it by killing him, as the powerful do to dozens of journalists and writers every year. But they chose the more perfect revenge: life as prison, where you live having lost everything, and know it, minute by slow, empty minute, until you die, as reports tell us, from cancer, septic shock, and respiratory and renal failure.