Readers of this blog need no introduction to Liu Xiaobo, his life or his death. I just wanted to take a moment to reflect on his passing several days ago, and to share my thoughts on what his plight tells us about the CCP and the perils of being an activist in today’s China.
Liu was an outspoken advocate for human rights, and was sharply critical of the CCP and the stultifying effect the government had on all aspects of Chinese life, including its intellectuals and authors. Liu was persistently critical of writers in China who, he felt, had lost their ability to think for themselves. From the single best tribute I’ve read on Liu’s life and death, by the great China Hand Perry Link:
“I can sum up what’s wrong with Chinese writers in one sentence,” Liu Xiaobo wrote in 1986. “They can’t write creatively themselves—they simply don’t have the ability—because their very lives don’t belong to them.”
Often in his writing Liu deliberately stuck his thumb into the government’s eye. He was a fierce critic of the CCP’s stranglehold on its people’s psyche and he was not afraid to say so. This became most obvious in his Charter 08, a manifesto calling for democratic reforms. It was to seal his fate, leading to his arrest and 11-year prison sentence for subversion. But even thirty years before that Liu showed just how courageous he could be, after he rushed back to Beijing from New York in March of 1989 to support the students demonstrating in Tiananmen Square.
As the movement lurched towards disaster, Liu tried to reason with the students to tone down their protests and return to their classes. When the army arrived, Liu negotiated with them to allow protesters to leave the square peacefully. In the aftermath, he was arrested and imprisoned until January 1991. “From the moment I walked out of the Square, my heart has been heavy, after all that bloodshed on June 4th. I’ve never gotten over this,” he said, afterwards.
The government has done a splendid job slandering Liu and destroying his reputation. The brutal 11-year sentence shocked the world and led to his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. The CCP-controlled media refer to him as a “criminal” and rage against the West for idealizing him. A particularly odious editorial in the Global Times lashes out at those outside China who dare to look favorably on Liu:
Since Liu’s medical parole was made public, the Chinese side has been focusing on Liu’s treatment, but some Western forces are always attempting to steer the issue in a political direction, hyping the treatment as a “human rights” issue. US and German authorities have also chimed in. Obviously, outside disturbances were of no help to Liu’s treatment. It is common sense that a critically ill patient should not be informed of disputes surrounding him that may arouse emotional upheaval, but the West was unwilling to care about Liu’s condition. Liu’s last days were politicized by the forces overseas. They used Liu’s illness as a tool to boost their image and demonize China. They aren’t really interested in prolonging Liu’s life. While Chinese doctors were doing their best to save Liu, they clamored and asked the critically ill patient to be transferred abroad only to show their so-called “sympathy.” Liu’s jail sentence is a solemn ruling of the Chinese law. Liu was diagnosed with cancer in jail, and the prison authorities granted him medical parole and provided him with humanitarian treatment. These are all facts. The various speculations from the West will vanish soon…. Liu lived in an era when China witnessed the most rapid growth in recent history, but he attempted to confront Chinese mainstream society under Western support. This has determined his tragic life. Even if he could live longer, he would never have achieved his political goals that are in opposition to the path of history.
Right, the government saw to it that Liu was given “humanitarian treatment.” Right, his goals of democratic reforms and human rights are “in opposition to the path of history.” It’s when we read pieces like this that we are reminded just how thuggish and brutal China’s government can be. I have tried over the years to give the Party the benefit of the doubt and to point out some of the good they have done for their people. But the fact remains they are an authoritarian government that at times displays all the characteristics of a police state. And since Xi came to power, more and more activists, and even their lawyers, have been thrown into prison. Now they continue to harass Liu’s widow, who remains under house arrest. (That’s a shocking atricle.) China under Xi is a thugocracy. You’re fine if you keep your mouth shut. But once you call attention to yourself by speaking out, God help you. The Party will crush you like an insect.
Many years ago I called China “the evil empire.” (And if you never read that post, I strongly recommend it, even though my assessment of the CCP has softened since I wrote it 14 years ago.) For all their efforts to show us a peaceful and humane China, for all their attempts to strengthen the country’s “soft power,” little has changed.
Three years ago we witnessed another CCP crime against humanity when they arrested and sentenced to prison for life a moderate Uighur professor, Ilham Tohti, who advocated peaceful solutions to China’s conflicts with the Uighurs. Life imprisonment. This was an obvious attempt to “kill the chicken to scare the monkey.” How can activists dare to speak truth to power when they see that their lives can in effect be snuffed out even for a peaceful call for modest reforms?
China longs to be seen as a peaceful and benevolent world power. But we cannot be fooled. It remains a morally bankrupt and semi-totalitarian state. Yes, there have been reforms, yes, people there enjoy a degree of freedom unthinkable a mere 30 years ago, and yes, the majority of Chinese would most likely vote for the CCP if elections were to be held today (is there any viable alternative?). But don’t deny that it remains a police state. Just ask Professor Tothi. Just ask Liu Xia.
Western-style democracy may not be the answer. (Look at who we elected as our own president.) But greater adherence to the rule of law is a necessary step for China to be seen as a free country. And let me add that I understand why some would be critical of Liu Xiaobo for pointing to the West as an example for China, for pointing to Hong Kong as an example of how colonization by the West would be a good thing for China, and for being in favor of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But that is all irrelevant. Liu should never have been thrown into prison. China has once again shown the world how paranoid, frightened and cowardly they can be. No government that isn’t terrified of the slightest opposition would ever sink to such a level of moral depravity. It cannot be forgotten or forgiven, despite the Global Times’ assertion that the West’s outrage over Liu’s plight “will vanish soon.” Let them believe that. The world remains shocked and appalled at Liu’s treatment, and history will not forget the CCP’s malfeasances.