A New Biography of China’s Imprisoned Nobel Laureate: A Q&A with Jean-Philippe Béja

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

Rowman and Littlefield recently published Steel Gate to Freedom : The Life of Liu Xiaobo, a translation of Yu Jie’s powerful biography of a man with whom he has long been friends. Liu remains China’s best known prisoner of conscience — awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, he was unable to collect it due to his 11-year prison term for his bold call for expanded civil liberties. This new biography opens with an introduction by Jean-Philippe Béja, a leading French specialist on China, whose work often focuses on struggles for democracy. I caught up with Béja, whose recent books include The Impact of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Massacre (Routledge, 2011), to ask him some questions. (Note: as someone who has known Liu for decades and often interviewed him, Béja sometimes refers to Liu familiarly as “Xiaobo” rather than by his surname.)

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: What are the kinds of things this book will tell Western readers about Liu Xiaobo that they would not likely have come across before, if their previous information about him had come only from pieces celebrating his win of the Nobel Peace Prize?

JEAN-PHILIPPE BEJA: Despite the fact that he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo remains quite unknown to the general public. I guess the biggest surprise will come from his personal experience during the Cultural Revolution. While it is described as a catastrophe in official discourse as well as in dissidents’ writings (including Liu’s), it comes out from the book as a period of freedom which provided this typical Northeastern lively youth with a number of opportunities to get into fights, and to assert his personality. This stands in contrast with the image of the thoughtful intellectual that came across in the 1990s, but it helps explain why he was not afraid of the provocations that later so shocked the progressive intellectuals used to political correctness.

Yu’s book also shows that Xiaobo was thrilled by all the crazes of the 1980s. Having become an ultra individualist in reaction to the “ultra collectivist” model imposed on youth by Mao in the 1970s, Liu tried everything: an admirer of Nietzsche, he seized every opportunity to assert his individuality. Besides — and this appears as a shock to Yu Jie — the young man who got married early was a strong believer in the sexual revolution that developed in the 1980s, a womanizer always surrounded by pretty young women. All these features remind the reader of Western 1960s activists. Except that, at the time, Xiaobo was not deeply involved in politics.

He changed after the June Fourth Massacre, which changed his life, and his role in China’s intellectual life. But this aspect of his personality, which is developed in Yu’s book, is more familiar to the public.

What do you think readers in mainland China who have only been exposed to denigrations of Liu as a traitorous and dangerous political figure (leaving aside the many who have never heard his name mentioned at all, as well as those who in critical intellectual and dissident communities), find most surprising to learn from this book? If, that is, they somehow got hold of Steel Gate to Freedom and perused it with an open mind?

They might be surprised to learn first of all that, within China, Xiaobo has not always been denigrated as a traitor. In the second half of the 1980s, he was very popular with students and young intellectuals who rushed to hear his presentations. The official media even published some of his provocative essays. But it is true that since 1989, he has been the target of official attacks.

I guess young people might be interested in the description of the 1980s intellectual atmosphere, that they pretty much ignore. They will also be interested in discovering the numerous facets of Liu’s personality, and will be impressed by his courage. His decision to “live in truth” whatever the consequences, will definitely appeal to the most politicized. But I guess that many a former “Little Emperor” — obsessed with career prospects and the will to make money — will find his idealism laughable.

How would you characterize the author, Yu Jie’s, goals in writing this account of his friend, which is clearly not meant to be a hagiography?

First of all, Yu Jie admires Liu Xiaobo, and is a good friend of his. I guess that if you write about a person who has decided to live in truth, you cannot depict him as a spotless figure. I think that Yu Jie wanted to show as much as possible the true nature of his friend’s personality, not neglecting its negative aspects. A literary critic himself who denounced the official Marxist literary theory, he was cautious not to paint the “typical character in a typical environment” (dianxing renwu, dinning huanjing) celebrated by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. In order to write Liu Xiaobo’s biography, Yu has traveled all over China to find people he had known at various stages of his life, despite the risks involved. Once he had been forced to go to the US, he interviewed almost all the Chinese people who had known him. I guess that to Yu Jie, the best tribute to his friend consists in giving a truthful image of his personality.

Were there new things that you learned from it, even as someone who has spent a great deal of time studying and writing about the events of 1989 and their legacy?

Yu Jie presents a very informative account of many stages of Liu’s life. During my meetings with Xiaobo, we mostly talked about politics and about developments since 1989, therefore I didn’t know much about his personal life before the Tiananmen protests. I learnt a lot on this subject from Yu’s book.

So far as the 1989 movement is concerned, I learned much less, but those parts of the book remain valuable. Yu’s account of the last days of the sit-in in Tiananmen Square is very detailed. I knew this part of Liu’s life story well from my interviews with him, and others who have studied the June 4th Movement will find much that is familiar in that part of the book as well. Still, it is interesting to see from it what Yu’s distinctive take on these events is, and he is an intriguing figure in his own right. His book also underscores the importance of the 1989 pro-democracy movement in the history of the PRC, and this, too, is significant.