Liu Xiaobo and the Independent Press
The case of Liu Xiaobo is, to me, the finest example of the role independent publishing can and must play in the modern world. Last week, the Chinese dissident poet was awarded the Nobel peace prize “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”. As he is currently serving an 11-year jail sentence in Beijing for subversion, Liu was represented at the award ceremony in Norway by a vacant chair.
Over the past 20 years, Liu Xiaobo has written extensively about the Tiananmen Square massacre, a prickly subject for a Chinese government that forbids open discussion about the event. In his work, Liu advocates such outrageous ideas as democratic elections and freedom of speech. His non-violent protests have landed him in China’s jails often. Predictably, his poetry collection, June Fourth Elegies, has never been published in his homeland.
Therefore, let us all take a moment to loudly applaud our friends at Graywolf Press. The not-for-profit publisher from Minneapolis has now purchased global rights to the first English-language collection of Liu’s poetry – a heartening development, to be sure, and one that perfectly illustrates why a healthy independent press is so crucial to culture and society at large.
Yet while we’re congratulating those at Graywolf, we also need to ask: Where were the publishing giants and conglomerates as Liu’s empty chair was accepting his award on his behalf? Where were the Bertelsmanns of the world? The News Corps? The Viacoms? The Time/Warners? The John Wileys? The Bloomsburys?
The answer might be extremely obvious, but remains no less depressing: they were busy taking care of interests. There are, after all, markets to squeeze. Ministers to appease. Shareholders to rub up. And who would want principles and human decency to get in the way of that?