Monday, June 4, 2012

Liu Xiaobo, the angry Nobel Peace laureate

Selected Essays and Poems of Liu Xiaobo,
ed. Perry Link, Tienchi Martin-Liao and Liu Xia, with foreword by Vaclav Havel 
Belknap Harvard Press, 355pp. 

Nobel Peace Prize laureates can be angry people.  Nobel himself spent a lifetime making explosives and selling armaments, then funded an annual prize for "the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."

Laureates have had warlike histories: Menachim Begin, Yasser Arafat, and Henry Kissinger among a good few others. Most have had nothing to do with armies or peace congresses, but contributed to “fraternity between nations” by demonstrating moral confrontation against political power. Jose Ramos Horta, Aung San Suu Kyi, Lech Walesa and the Dalai Lama come to mind.

In 2010 the Peace Prize Committee infuriated the Chinese government by selecting Liu Xiaobo, then as now in a Chinese prison, charged with “incitement to subvert state power”. His “crimes” were purely literary, but enough to enrage the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

This book selects essays and commentaries published by Liu, at personal risk, in magazines and online from around the time of the 1989 Tian An Men incident through to Liu's final statement at his Beijing trial in December 2009.

Liu asserted then that he has “No enemies, no hatred”, but he spares nobody with his trenchant criticism of contemporary China. The Communist Party is his main target, but he also attacks less-radical Chinese intellectuals, dissidents, and those foreign fellow-travellers who make excuses for the Communist Party's refusal to grant fundamental human rights. You can't speak out like this without creating powerful enemies, and you won't persist with it unless you bear substantial reserves of anger. The line between anger and hatred is hard to define.

 The Chinese scholar-hero who dares to speak truth to power is an ancient tradition. But Liu writes off Confucius as a failure at politics who was only endorsed as a sage by later generations of dictators and emperors because he insisted on obedience to authority. Liu blames this for the “slave mentality” of modern Chinese toward their government.

Mostly, he argues for the establishment of individual rights within China. The Charter 08 document, drafted with other liberal intellectuals, attracted more than 12,000 signatories and embarrassed China's leadership in the year of the Beijing Olympics.  This provoked Liu's arrest and imprisonment for sedition.

Liu remind us what rights are currently denied to citizens of China. The separation of powers between constitution, government and judiciary, and the protection of private property including title to land, are things we have come to take for granted.

Charter 08 also calls for China to devolve its centralized system into a  “federation of democratic communities of China”. This would have sent China's right-wing neo-nationalists hopping mad, as well as the Communist Party centralists.

Liu despises the self-glorifying rhetoric that infects popular Chinese culture, the mythologizing of Chinese achievement far beyond reality, and the “bellicose and thuggish” attitudes to China's place in the world as it grows in economic strength. He angrily dismisses those Western commentators who over-praise and over-estimate China's past, its progress and its future, accusing them of naivety, patronizing fantasy, or self-serving attempts to ingratiate themselves with masters of the China growth gravy-train.

There's a lot of anger, for someone who professes to have "no hatred, no enemies".  He provokes reflections on Western society as well as on China's.

Richard Thwaites witnessed China's first modern movement for human rights in the Democracy Wall movement in Beijing in 1979, while Liu Xiaobo was a student.

Read my full review