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Globe editorial: Liu Xiaobo’s death is one more reminder of who rules China

A few days before the end of 2009, the Chinese thinker and dissident Liu Xiaobo penned a statement to read at the conclusion of his trial for "inciting subversion".

He was forbidden from delivering the remarks, which didn't prevent a signature line from becoming famous: "I have no enemies and no hatred."

The feeling was not mutual on the part of Chinese authorities. When Mr. Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, the government responded by keeping him locked up, sneering that the selection committee was "a political instrument for some Western forces." It thereafter blocked Chinese Internet users from searching for Mr. Liu's name or the word "Nobel."

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As is often the case in authoritarian regimes, the treatment elevated his stature; when Mr. Liu was led away to prison, the blogger Beichen dubbed it the birth of "China's Mandela."

May Mr. Liu's legacy be so distinguished, and let his death at age 61, in a Chinese hospital with guards at the doors, stand as a reminder of exactly who runs things in Beijing, and what kind of a regime the Trudeau government is so eager to be friends with.

The Communist Party of China has joined ignominious company; the only other Nobel Peace Prize laureate to die in custody was imprisoned by Nazi Germany.

Mr. Liu spent much of the last three decades in Chinese prisons. His final period of detention began in 2008, because of his involvement with the Charter 8 manifesto. Modelled on the Charter 77 movement in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia, Mr. Liu and his colleagues called for such dangerous innovations as free speech, freedom of religion, an independent judiciary and democratic elections.

For this, he was charged with subversion.

The Chinese regime is famously unaccepting of any human-rights talk; that Western governments did so little public agitating against Mr. Liu's detention, and did not loudly demand that he be allowed him to leave the country for medical treatment – in marked contrast with the outcry that greeted fellow Nobel laureate Aung Sun Suu Kyi's house arrest in Mynamar – was a shameful concession.

And Mr. Liu was not the only pro-democracy voice in China to have been silenced without meaningful consequence.

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This month marks the second anniversary of a countrywide crackdown on organized dissent that swept up some 360 lawyers and activists, who according to multiple reports were detained and subjected to withering interrogation.

For many, the alleged crime was talking about democracy, in the manner of Mr. Liu (sample phrase from the 2008 oeuvre that got him imprisoned: "The ruling elite continues to cling to its authoritarian power and fights off any move toward political change.")

China has changed profoundly, in ways both large and small, since the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests – in which Mr. Liu played an influential part. The country has advanced economically, but it is a different story when it comes to human rights.

China remains a non-democratic, one-party state. And though there is some free speech, it applies only to safe and non-controversial topics; the communist regime stifles debate and censors the Internet more zealously and on a larger scale than any other.

Since taking office in 2015, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made a pronounced pivot to China; negotiations are currently underway on a free trade agreement. The question is not whether to engage but how to do so constructively without compromising on our own values – and without blinding ourselves to who we are dealing with.

Thus, an opportunity arises. It is incumbent on Canada's government to make it abundantly clear how Canadians feel about human rights and the treatment of people like Mr. Liu and his wife Liu Xia, held under house arrest for the crime of being married to a dissident. At minimum, Canada must strongly demand that Ms. Liu be given her freedom.

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Despite the Chinese government's efforts to suppress Mr. Liu's courtroom words, they stood as his Nobel acceptance speech in Oslo; an empty chair was set on the stage to symbolize his imprisonment, the statement was read by actor Liv Ullman.

"I firmly believe," he said in the speech he was never able to give, "that China's political progress will not stop, and I, filled with optimism, look forward to the advent of a future free China. For there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme."

Immediately after his death, the regime that had repeatedly imprisoned him had his body cremated and his ashes scattered at sea, depriving him of even a final resting place. It is a sign of the communist authorities' fear of Mr. Liu. They are desperately trying to inoculate their continued hold on power against his words, his ideas and his hope.

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