The Chinese poet, literary critic, political thinker, and fearless dissident Liu Xiaobo—who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010—died last week while still under custody. He was imprisoned in 2008 for expressing opinions the Communist regime considered dangerous, and he had been arrested multiple times in the preceding two decades. In a 2012 essay, Simon Leys described his ideas and career:
After Mao’s death, universities were at long last allowed to reopen; in 1977 Liu joined the first group of students admitted again into higher education; . . . eleven years later, after obtaining his doctorate, he was appointed to a teaching post [at Beijing Normal University]. His original mind, vast intellectual curiosity, and gifts for expression ensured a brilliant academic career; quite early, he reached a large audience extending far beyond the classroom, and acquired the reputation of an enfant terrible in the Chinese cultural world. . . . Liu’s reputation as an original critic of ideas [eventually] brought him invitations abroad. . . .
While Liu was in New York [in 1989, teaching political science at Barnard College], the student [dissident] movement in Beijing continued to develop. . . . Liu sensed that a crisis would soon be reached, and he made a grave and generous decision: he gave up the safety and comfort of his New York academic appointment and rushed back to Beijing [to join the protestors at Tiananmen Square]. He did not leave the square during the last dramatic days of the students’ demonstration; . . . after martial law was imposed, he negotiated with the army in the hope of obtaining a peaceful evacuation of the square. . . .
At the  Oslo ceremony, an empty chair was substituted for the absent laureate. Within hours, the words “empty chair” were banned from the Internet in China—wherever they occurred, the entire machinery of censorship was automatically set in motion.
Foreign experts in various intelligence organizations are trying to assess the growing strength of China, politically, economically, and militarily. The Chinese leaders are most likely to have a clear view of their own [considerable] power. If so, why are they so scared of a frail and powerless poet and essayist, locked away in jail, cut off from all human contacts? Why did the mere sight of his empty chair at the other end of the Eurasian continent plunge them into such a panic?