Storm Cloud on a Summer’s Day

It is an almost perfect summer day—the sun is shining in a white cloud sky; the air is warm, not yet sweltering. Light filters through white umbrellas shading diners at the outside restaurant by the park. On this almost perfect New York day I am thinking about the rulers in China who have imprisoned for the last nine years one of the country’s courageous thinkers for ideas that will outlast him and his jailers.

Today it was announced Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo is in critical condition, on medical parole having been given a terminal diagnosis. As a principal author of Charter’08 which advocates for nonviolent democratic reform in China, Liu Xiaobo, writer, critic and activist has lived his life as a man of ideas.

As the sun shifts above me, skirting over skyscrapers, finding a gap between the umbrellas and spreading over my table, I consider the trajectory and the life of an idea as it dawns, unfolds, iterates, then flies off where it is embraced, where it empowers and takes on a life of its own. Ideas are connected to, but not owned or encumbered by, those who articulate them.

The fallacy—the fundamental fallacy—of the rulers in China and elsewhere lies here. No one can imprison ideas. No one can manage or own the imagination of another. Government leaders can physically restrain with the hope that the idea will die, but in the case of Liu Xiaobo, the ideas behind Charter ’08, which was signed by more than 2000 Chinese citizens from all walks of life, endure. These ideas calling for a freer society continue to grow wings, often quietly, but sometimes even more quickly as the physical confines grow harsh.

“Any man or institution that tries to rob me of my dignity will lose,” declared Nelson Mandela. It is an injunction worth noting.


  1. Lynn Goldberg says:

    Sad news about Liu Xiaobo’s health; his ideas will live on through your support so beautifully expressed, keeping us mindful of the rest of the world as we mourn the situation in our country. There are no borders….

  2. Eric Lax says:

    Liu is such a strong beacon. As you say, you can lock up the person but not the ideas. A small mercy for political ends now.

  3. Larry Siems says:

    Very powerful, and so heartbreaking. Here’s hoping for a miracle for him and Liu Xia; they certainly deserve one.

  4. Marian Botsford Fraser says:

    Isn’t today’s news about Liu Xiaobo just heartbreaking. I sincerely hope that there are effective diplomats working extremely hard in Beijing right now (I hope Germany, Canada, Sweden, Norway, etc., sadly we can’t rely on either US or UK right now!) to get them both out, if that’s what they want, or at least to help them both.

  5. A noble Nobel laureate. Thanks for bringing attention to him, Joanne.

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