Before he was China’s most famous political prisoner, Liu Xiaobo, who died in prison of liver cancer at age 61, was a teacher and leader in the 1989 Tiananmen Square student movement.

His death, announced Thursday, has shocked China’s far-flung dissident community, partly because he was revered for his idealism and courage, but also because he is the first of the Tiananmen protest leaders to die.

Wang Dan

Wang Dan was a central leader of the 1989 pro-democracy protest in Beijing. He remembers when he and Liu Xiaobo were put on trial in 1991 and they met each other in the corridor outside the courtroom. (Wang Dan)

“I felt profound grief. I could not speak at all for the first hour after I heard the news,” Wang Dan, a central student leader of the 1989 pro-democracy protest, said in an email interview from Taiwan, where he’s a university professor.

In the spring of 1989, Liu, then a 33-year old Beijing-based literary critic and university teacher, was visiting New York City and watching the movement unfold on TV when he decided to return home and join the protesters.

In a 1995 TV documentary, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, he recalled thinking at the time: “What the heck, live or die, I’ll just go.”

Liu camped out in Tiananmen Square and initiated a hunger strike in support of the students’ demands for political reform.

Wang was one of the most high-profile student leaders, a 20-year-old history major remembered for his enormous glasses, slight frame and sincere manner.

The lives of Wang and Liu changed forever through the events of June 4, 1989, when the Chinese military opened fire on the crowds, killing hundreds of people in and around the square. Amid the panic, Liu famously went to the soldiers and negotiated a safe exit  for the students still in the square, possibly preventing even more bloodshed.

(FILE) FILE CHINA LIU XIAOBO OBIT

Civil rights activist Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009 for helping to write a pro-democracy manifesto that fellow protester Dan Wang described as ‘very moderate.’ (Liu Xia via EPA)

After it was all over, the Chinese rounded up the protest leaders, jailing many, including Wang and Liu. Liu went to prison for 21 months and Wang spent about a decade in and out of prison before he went reluctantly into exile in the United States, eventually completing a PhD in history at Harvard in 2008.

Liu stayed in China and later co-wrote the Charter 08 pro-democracy petition, which led to an 11-year prison sentence in 2009. The Nobel Committee awarded him the Peace Prize in 2010. He dedicated it to “the lost souls of June 4.”

Now Wang Dan is moving back to the United States, where he’s a permanent resident, to open a think-tank focusing on promoting democratic change in China — one that will try to engage with a new generation of Chinese.

He spoke with CBC News on Thursday about how he’ll remember Liu Xiaobo.

We know his importance as a writer, intellectual and dissident. What was he like as a person?

In nature, he was a poet, and a lover of literature and art. He spoke candidly and he had a lively character. Because of this, he cherished freedom and chose to be a political dissident.

How do you think he embodied the idealism of the Tiananmen era?

In the future, China’s transformation needs the bravery of idealists to confront the autocratic regime. Liu Xiaobo himself is the best example of a brave man having the ideals to confront the autocratic regime.

Wang Dan: Remembering Tiananmen12:29

Could you remind us about his role in the Tiananmen Square protests in the days leading up to the massacre?

Liu joined the 1989 student movement at its later stage. His biggest roles were: firstly, he participated in the second round of a hunger strike and was called one of the “four gentlemen of Tiananmen Square;” secondly, on the last night in the square, he protected the students by preventing them from conducting radical action. Therefore, we avoided greater tragedy taking place.

Could you share a personal memory of your time with him on the square or after?

In 1991, the Chinese Communist Party put those of us jailed in the Qincheng Prison on trial. Liu and I were in the court the same day. When he walked out of court, we met each other in the corridor and we tightly hugged each other. I will forever remember that moment.

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Hundreds of thousands fill Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in May 1989 in China’s biggest populist upheaval since the Cultural Revolution. (Reuters)

He later said he felt enormous guilt about Tiananmen Square. Why?

He thought that he did not help the students withdraw from the square. He felt guilty about it. When he was in the prison, he was interviewed by CCTV [China’s official broadcaster]. In the interview, he said that he personally did not see anybody die in the square. This video clip was later used by the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda organ. He felt regret about it for the rest of his life. He decided to redeem that for the rest of his life.

 Do you think it haunted him for the rest of his life? 

Yes.

And is that why he refused to go into exile?

Yes.

CHINA TIANANMEN

A military police officer patrols over the newly renovated Tianamen Square as it reopened to the public in June 1999, 10 years after the infamous crackdown on tens of thousands of mostly student protesters. (Associated Press)

The Chinese government has never officially acknowledged the Tiananmen Square massacre. How important was he in the years afterward in keeping its memory alive?

Later, he not only helped the Tiananmen Mothers Movement but he also wrote a great number of essays to commemorate June 4. At the same time, he founded the Independent Chinese PEN Center, which attracted many dissidents. He essentially became the leader of China’s domestic opposition movement.

Finally, he is the first of the Tiananmen leaders to die. What would you like to convey to the world about him, about your generation, and about the meaning of the Tiananmen Square movement?

Back in 1989, the students’ position was very moderate, but the government responded with force. Liu’s Charter 08 was very moderate, too, but still, the government jailed him. Those facts convey a simple truth: that over the past 28 years, the Chinese Communist Party has not reformed in the right way, despite international thinking otherwise. I hope Liu’s tragic death will wake up people and governments in the West. The nature of the Communist Party has not changed at all and it is becoming more and more totalitarian … and this will be a threat for the international community.

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