I Have No Enemies review

MCLC Resource Center is pleased to announce publication of Jeffrey Kinkley’s review of I Have No Enemies: The Life and Legacy of Liu Xiaobo, by Perry Link and Wu Dazhi. The review appears below and at its online home: https://u.osu.edu/mclc/book-reviews/kinkley/. My thanks to Nicholas Kaldis, our literary studies book review editor, for ushering the review to publication.

Kirk Denton, MCLC

I Have No Enemies:
The Life and Legacy of Liu Xiaobo

By Perry Link and Wu Dazhi

Reviewed by Jeffrey C. Kinkley

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright November, 2023)

Perry Link and Wu Dazhi, I Have No Enemies: The Life and Legacy of Liu Xiaobo New York: Columbia University Press, 2023. xiv + 553 pp. ISBN: 9780231216760 (Paperback); ISBN: 9780231206341 (Hardcover); ISBN: 9780231556446 (E-book).

I Have No Enemies: The Life and Legacy of Liu Xiaobo, makes a magisterial contribution to Chinese intellectual and political history. It is a comprehensive biography of an intrepid human rights promoter, leader, and thinker who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize during his fourth imprisonment in the People’s Republic of China, prior to his being in effect—deliberately or not—consigned to death, which arrived in 2017, during his last, eleven-year sentence. Liu Xiaobo’s 刘晓波 major opinions and the changes in them are briefly summarized, explained, and compared in the context of his life and times, speech by speech, essay by essay. One major dividend is an inside history of a major part of domestic Chinese ideological debate and political dissent in the post-Mao age, in 500 well-documented pages, so often did Liu Xiaobo’s dialogues and exploits interact with those of other freethinkers. The book also reflects on the larger social history of contemporary nonofficial protest and agitation for reform, whose content and strategies were transmuted not just by the failure of June Fourth, 1989, but also by the spread of internet communication early in the twenty-first century. Wu Dazhi and Perry Link meanwhile proffer insights into the emotional life of their main biographical subject. He was blessed with a brilliant intellect, nearly photographic memory, and the ability to deliver memorable and charismatic speeches, despite a tendency to stutter in daily life. Liu Xiaobo was both an inveterate contrarian and an eternal optimist. And yet, in his later years, he was constantly worried about causing unhappy consequences for others (already at Tiananmen in 1989, and later, in the 2008 leadup to Charter 08). He appears to have been tormented in those years by survivor guilt and what he felt was his inadequacy and irresponsibility as a family man. The biography tends to agree with him on the latter. Yet Liu Xiaobo was undaunted about what might happen to his own person, even as he incessantly questioned the logic of his own intellect and agency, and the very moral underpinnings of his personal motivation. The reader sees also the trials and tribulations of Liu’s second wife, Liu Xia 刘霞. A unique love story unfolds in chapter 20, the last chapter before the Epilogue.

The title of this book might seem ironic to those like me who are less versed in 1980s Chinese culture wars, post-Mao political history, and Chinese dissent, than are Perry Link, his collaborator Wu Dazhi (a film critic, friend of Liu Xiaobo of about the same age, and fellow dissenter), and the many people they interviewed and whose articles they read, exhaustively, for this project. Link is self-effacing and “Wu Dazhi” is a pseudonym. Liu Xiaobo had many friends, colleagues, and silent sympathizers, but an entire Leninist party-state apparatus skillfully mobilized forces to be his enemies and his minders, those last called “national protectors” (国保), who kept close by Liu in his later years when he was outside of prison to help remind him of what he should do to “stay out of trouble.” (He did not take their advice.) That Liu had “no enemies” expresses his attitude, which he voiced during his trial for state subversion in 2009 and also earlier, in a declaration of principles he made during the 1989 protests at Tiananmen.[1] An earlier book title proposed for I Have No Enemies was “Long March Toward Freedom,” inspired by Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom, with the change of preposition (my emphasis) to acknowledge that the fate of China remained in limbo. Many things about the creation of this biography, its coauthors, and how they see the book, are told in Jeremy Brown’s May 27, 2020 webinar interview of Link for Simon Fraser University, which was posted on YouTube in 2021.

Liu Xiaobo’s last writings in prison were confiscated by the authorities after his death (p. 465), so it might be premature to call Link’s and Wu’s book a definitive account because the final measure of Liu’s legacy is not yet clear. I Have No Enemies might yet be called an account of record. It is not a first draft of history, but a heavily contextualized and verified second draft of history that has captured, along with extensive documentary evidence, memories still available for capture.[2]

To summarize: the chapters of I Have No Enemies follow the life, personal and collegial relationships, writings, and thought of Liu Xiaobo, reflecting on: his early, rebellious years; his first love and subsequent marriage to Tao Li 陶力, his first wife; his college years; his 1980s exploits as a “dark horse” celebrity intellectual who sought out ideological disputes particularly with fellow freethinkers, even avant-garde poets and writers, deploying what he had learned from abstruse global philosophical texts and world and classical Chinese literature; his unfettered writing during 1988 trips abroad; his sudden return to Beijing in 1989 to support, criticize, catch up on, and try to influence the protests at Tiananmen; his subsequent imprisonment as a supposed black hand of that movement and then his composition, in jail, of a confession that he came to regret for the rest of his life because he regarded it in retrospect as cowardly; his involvement in and leadership of a Rights Defense Movement that through the internet promoted the growth of civil society in China in diverse locations across the nation; his increasing boldness in characterizing the PRC regime; his work editing Charter 08; and his final years in prison, during which he continued his reading and self-improvement. At every stage, we learn what books and ideas Liu Xiaobo was reading, memorizing, and critiquing.

A major interpretive thesis of I Have No Enemies is that Liu Xiaobo’s importance lies not so much in his deeds as in his thinking—original thinking, on a par with that of his role models, Nelson Mandela and Václav Havel. That is bound to be the book’s most controversial premise. The book argues that Liu developed his own theory of nonviolent, gradualist, and leaderless resistance, through his reading during incarceration and from life experience, notably his 1989 witness of protester and bystander deaths around Tiananmen square. Liu Xiaobo and his fellow spirits pivoted from appealing to China’s authorities to change their ways, to trying to transform Chinese society from the bottom up, largely through a process of communication to ordinary people at the grass roots of how their lives could be improved if they reflected on the malfeasance and mistakes committed by local tyrannies. Reflection on actual incidents at the bottom could then lead to more abstract thinking about the need for a certain justice at the higher levels, one that would reflect shared, communal values at the grass roots, beyond the national “policy and law” so often used instrumentally by the sovereign power. As to the chronological biographical narrative, if Wu and Link had been writing a novel, their work might be called a Bildungsroman, a story of one man’s learning and maturation: a tale of periodic stocktaking not unlike the constant self-assessment of its subject.

I Have No Enemies is written clearly and straightforwardly enough to attract readers outside of academe (for instance, global advocates of universal human rights), though the book’s density of detail might make it heavy going for general readers. Thumbnail identifications accompany the first appearances of secondary actors in the narrative, and the text has useful reminders of their identity when they pop up again in later chapters. Sensitive to semantic change in Chinese philosophical and political vocabulary, the authors explain China-specific connotations of words like “feudal” and “Western” in official discourse, how in the early twenty-first century “thought” replaced “culture” as a surrogate word for “politics,” and the significance of Liu’s cautious move from calling the PRC regime authoritarian to naming it a dictatorship. The coauthors have strong backgrounds in comparative literary analysis of modern Chinese fiction and philosophy, which strengthens their comparisons of Liu Xiaobo’s stated opinions as those views changed through the years. Another research specialty of Perry Link’s is Chinese popular literature, and that kind of writing, too, played a role in Liu’s latter-day recognition of the importance of common readers and how ordinary citizens might effectuate social change. There is a Liu Xiaobo Chronology near the start of the book and a substantial index at the end. The book lacks a Bibliography or Works Cited section, but the notes cite names and the titles of works referenced in Chinese characters, followed by English translations in brackets.

I Have No Enemies is not hagiographic. The narration of Liu Xiaobo’s college and post-college years, for instance, depicts a man full of youthful arrogance—something of a grandstander. And the book points out how ironic it was that June Fourth and Charter 08 became the signature aspects of Liu’s legacy in the public mind before he won the Nobel Prize. At Tiananmen in 1989, Liu was not only a relatively late joiner of the protest movement, he was often at loggerheads with the other activists. “Only after he got out of prison in the 1990s, discovered the Tiananmen Mothers, and grew very close to Ding Zilin [丁子霖] did his identification with the massacre solidify” (470). His most impactful intervention in 1989 was a brave and meliorative one, on the morning of June 4, when he facilitated the peaceful exit of numerous encircled protesters from the square. Liu Xiaobo was also initially reluctant to edit the text of Charter 08. It was a personal appeal from Ding Zilin that brought him in so fully. She might merit a big book in English of her own someday.

I Have No Enemies is told in a third-person voice representing both Link and Wu, except for “A Final Note from Wu Dazhi,” which is a four-sentence message of hope following the book’s Epilogue. How a unified collaborative voice was constructed, and how constituent aspects of the narrative might be analyzed and attributed to the individual authors, is bound to intrigue literary readers, particularly when the narrative characterizes Liu Xiaobo’s state of mind and other matters of subjective observation and interpretation. In the previously mentioned webinar, Perry Link says that Wu Dazhi “was the content provider” and he, Link, was “the carpenter,” since Wu didn’t have the linguistic skills to write a book in English. They exchanged manuscripts and ideas back and forth. Given both authors’ deep scholarly engagement with modern Chinese literary history at postgraduate levels well before 1989, one must suspect that the interplay of opinion was complicated. In the interview, Link says he was the author more inclined to include material about Liu Xiaobo that might not be viewed as favorable to him.

This book delivers further information about recent Chinese social and institutional history. Early chapters compare the urban environment, institutions, and culture of the Chinese Northeast and Inner Mongolia in the 1950s and 1960s with those of other regions. Later chapters reflect on the evolution of Chinese policing and surveillance; the degree of decision-making authority granted to ground level security operatives (very little); the Communist Party’s variegated ways of manipulating free thought and those who would think it; counterstrategies that evolved among China’s independent netizens; temporarily successful strategies adopted by online and even print media so that they could convey real news about real events; how it was that the regime unintentionally created dedicated dissidents among the Chinese population through its harassment of dissenters; and the impact of political dissent on the Chinese families involved or not really involved. And much more. The book’s Epilogue (468-480) provides a useful and defining summation of Liu Xiaobo’s life and legacy.

Jeffrey C. Kinkley
St. John’s University, New York


[1] Liu Xiaobo’s phrase “no enemies” appeared previously in an English book title, in Liu Xiaobo, No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems, Perry Link, Tienchi Martin-Liao, and Liu Xia, eds., with a foreword by Václav Havel (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012).

[2] Other important book-length considerations of Liu and his legacy in English include Jean-Philippe Béja, Fu Hualing, and Eva Pils, eds., Liu Xiaobo, Charter 08 and the Challenges of Political Reform in China (HK: Hong Kong University Press, 2012), and Yu Jie, Steel Gate to Freedom: The Life of Liu Xiaobo, H. C. Hsu, trans., with a foreword by Jean-Philippe Béja (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). Liu Xiaobo’s Contemporary Chinese Politics and Intellectuals, translated and introduced by Roger Noether, can be read online, complete with Liu’s postscript, in Chinese Law and Government 38, 4 (July/August 2005) and 38, 5 (September/October 2005).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *