Liu Xiaobo

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.

The Discussion: 18 Comments

Welcome signs of life from a dormant and distinguished mallard!

People who knew him affirm that LXB kept growing. They say he became kinder, more serious, and even more principled in his later years–before his last long imprisonment. It is doubtful that we’ll learn much about his time in prison; the likelihood that Liu Xia will ever be permitted to speak freely seems small.

Of all that China has produced in the last century, the life and character of Liu Xiaobo ranks among the most compelling grounds for national pride. It seems ironic that so many Chinese scarcely know him and are resolved to forget what little they know.

July 24, 2017 @ 1:32 am | Comment

A.E., thanks for your characteristically wise comment. What a pity that so many Chinese who actually do know about Liu Xiaobo see him as a criminal. I’ve been shocked to see him slandered by Chinese bloggers, not to mention the Global Times.

Yes, I’ve been dormant for six months now and am hoping I can get back to blogging on a regular basis. Facebook has made blogs all but irrelevant but I’m going to try to get this blog back on track.

July 28, 2017 @ 6:37 am | Comment

Why was LXB fullish enough to challenge a monolithic power structure? He knows very well that a monolithic power structure like CCP that has accumulate vast amounts of political and material capital, both inside and outside China, is not touchable in this day and age. Even the most militarily and economically powerful state in the world, namely the Mightly United States, has not much leverage against this power structure. What makes LXB think a single book nerd like himself, with nothing but a pen, can make a dent in this structure? Does he think his Western allies will come rush to save him? How naive. Norwegians, who awarded the Nobel to him, have made up with the CCP after their foreign policy analysts deemed the awarding of the prize the biggest realpolitic of their country in recent memory – they got punished good.

Don’t touch a high voltage wire.

July 31, 2017 @ 6:07 am | Comment

Let me put it another way: the most militarily and economically powerful state in the world, namely the Mightly United States has tried for the past 20 years to militarily, economically, and politically find leverage and weak spots inside the CCP’s power structure in order to gain an upper hand in its ‘game of thrones’ dance with it. Have they been successful? Meh…

Does LXB have the resource and power of the mighty United States?

July 31, 2017 @ 6:09 am | Comment

Other than some weakly worded and perfuntory remarks, what other substantive actions have major Western powers taken to ‘punish’ the CCP for the killing of LXB? Economic sanctions? Military blockage? Diplomatic freezing?

What cards do the Western powers have now?

July 31, 2017 @ 6:10 am | Comment

And of course CCP knows this – the West has no more cards left.

July 31, 2017 @ 6:11 am | Comment

I would argue that these events show exactly how weak the CCP is. Although they seem monolithic, the lengths that they go to to persecute people like LXB and other far more innocuous activists and even people who simply work for ‘subversive’ organisations, sometimes without even realising that they are offending the government is a clear show of weakness on the part of the government, as is their inability to project any serious soft power at all.
The reason that America has failed to leverage any serious power against the CCP is a lack of will as much as ability, although governments always make noise against their most egregious behaviour, the reality is that the western governments are in love with the money that China is providing
But if you look at the path China has taken over the past few years it is heading down the dark path that is inevitable for a regime like that. They are bumping into all of their enemies in Asia and locking up more people at home, it is going to come to a head at some point and although the CCP may well win an election, they have made it impossible to have an election because the opposition is not preparing for an election, they have been criminalizesd. It is a massive house of cards.
A good indication of their weakness is the lack of friends China has, the ‘one belt’ scheme which is touted as a way to unite Asia is in fact a big debt scheme, which doesn’t bring friends. I think it is a bit like the Soviet Union at the end, the government that seems so monolithic just needs one slip for the whole edifice to fall and just as the west can’t stand up to the, because of how they are designed, CCP can’t not piss people off and get to a point where the chickens come home, because of their design

July 31, 2017 @ 8:05 am | Comment

“The world remains shocked and appalled at Liu’s treatment”

The world has a lot of things to be shocked and appalled at, like the thousands of academics and public officials purged by Turkey, or the 3,000 or so extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, or the thousands killed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen topped off with 14 imminent student beheadings.

I think the CCP has realized “the world’s” discomfort and abhorrence never really amount to much, so they will keep doing what they’re doing until “the world” actually comes up with a consistent means of naming and punishing those states that transgress whatever moral vision it has for itself.

August 2, 2017 @ 6:56 pm | Comment

“I would argue that these events show exactly how weak the CCP is. Although they seem monolithic, the lengths that they go to to persecute people like LXB and other far more innocuous activists and even people who simply work for ‘subversive’ organisations”

Out of all of the West’s targets, the CCP is by far the most resilient and the strongest. If the CCP is “weak”, than Putin and Maduro and Kim are even “weaker”, and yet it doesn’t look like at least Iran, North Korea and Russia are about to fold.

So lets take “weakness” as yet another world in the global cosmopolitan vocabulary that means precisely nothing, and tells us nothing about how to proceed.

August 2, 2017 @ 6:59 pm | Comment

“They are bumping into all of their enemies in Asia”

Nearly every single country in the continent of Asia is fairly close Chinese partner. With Rody Duterte flipping the Philippines, they’re coming off the radar as well. All you have left is India, despised and distrusted by nearly all its neighbors, who China has actually won a war against; Vietnam, also hated by all its neighbors, who China also went to war with in ’79 and ’88; and Japan, which really lacks its own foreign policy.

“A good indication of their weakness is the lack of friends China has, the ‘one belt’ scheme which is touted as a way to unite Asia is in fact a big debt scheme, which doesn’t bring friends.”

China chooses of its own accord to not make commitments, so it can avoid embarrassments like claiming to be the paragon of human rights while its allies in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel and the Philippines murder about 10,000 people. China gets all the benefits of “friendship” with Russia, Iran, the Stans, etc, but they are not in any official alliance structure which, today, have nothing but scarce deterrent value.

August 2, 2017 @ 7:04 pm | Comment

Hi Richard. Thanks for blogging on this. Not sure I have more to add.

I think Nikolai makes a good point. Although the CCP has a monopoly on official power in China, it lacks the psychological strength to deal with any challenge – perceived or real – to its status. This makes it weak in many ways.

Nikolai also makes a good point about elections. If you ban and criminialise any alternative, so no Opposition can form, and force the media to report favourably on you, of course you will win any election. That’s not a real indication of support.

Just as if Trump established a political dynasty in the USA, the Democrats were banned and all media was turned into something like Fox News, after 50 years I’m sure the USA would almost, to a man and woman, be cheering for Donald Trump the Third.

August 5, 2017 @ 4:56 pm | Comment

Thanks Raj. And thanks to Nikolai for your well-reasoned comment. YourFriend (aka Ferin), nice to see you here, and nice to know you are the same broken record as always.

August 6, 2017 @ 4:12 am | Comment

“I think Nikolai makes a good point. Although the CCP has a monopoly on official power in China, it lacks the psychological strength to deal with any challenge – perceived or real – to its status. This makes it weak in many ways.”

How does “psychological strength” apply to statecraft? They could just be doing it out of habit, and I’m sure they’d know if they were pissing too many people off to get away with. There simply have been no significant grassroots movements in favor of democracy unlike what was seen in Taiwan and SK. The typical Chinese person doesn’t care, or at least doesn’t care now. Most of them barely noticed when Liu died.

“That’s not a real indication of support.”

Countless surveys and studies done by reputable Western orgs (Kennedy School, Pew, Gallup) have shown that support for “the regime” among the Chinese public is extremely high, and this comports with my personal experience.

“after 50 years I’m sure the USA would almost, to a man and woman, be cheering for Donald Trump the Third.”

Just like how all of Syria was cheering for Assad and Iraq for Saddam? Again, lazy generalizations.

August 6, 2017 @ 1:04 pm | Comment

” nice to know you are the same broken record as always”

When you’re right all along, and your “opponent” never offers anything new to consider, there’s no need to change your opinion.

I saw Trump coming, and I see Liu fading away to irrelevance in the Chinese consciousness just like Tiananmen.

August 6, 2017 @ 1:05 pm | Comment

I don’t quite get the statement that CCP is ‘weak’. If it’s really weak, shouldn’t it have collapsed in the face of, oh I don’t know, multiple massive political and economic upheavals in the past? Starting with Long March, GLF, CR, TSM, 97 Financial Crisis, etc. How the heck did such a weak organization obtain power, and went on to rule China for that many years, and seeing its domestic and international political and material capital multiply in decades?

Weak:
liable to break or give way under pressure; easily damaged.

If the almighty United States and Western Europe, the two most politically economically militarily and technologically advanced entities in the world is unable to get CCP to release a single human being, how does that make CCP weak? Doesn’t strong means an ability to get others to do what you want, and weak means a lack of ability to resist doing what others want?

August 6, 2017 @ 9:02 pm | Comment

During TSM ’89, Everybody thought that the government would fall, and a new state would have to be built on Western standards. A new state led by themselves, of course.

But no, that didn’t happen. The little old man Deng Shopping had a pair, and he sent the tanks. Most of the status maximizers fled. But Liu Xiaobo didn’t. The guy isn’t just some run of the mill leftist activist. He’s a stubborn son of a bitch. He stayed, doubled down on his writing about how China is bad and corrupt and evil and nasty and everything Western is honey and spice and everything nice. He was sent to jail, again and again. And while he went abroad every now and then to pick up some Western money, he always returned to China. He just couldn’t believe that China wouldn’t bow down to his majesty and just hand him the status he deserves. Surely these evil pigs won’t send me to jail again?! Not when I have the mighty USA behind me?

To jail he went. He was given a Noble Peace prize. To jail he went.

The West miscalculated this time, they thought by hving the USA publicly back him, and giving him a Nobel would force China to back down. This might have worked 10 years prior when China was weaker. But not anymore:
China’s monolithic power structure no longer had to give a fuck what award he gets and who is behind him.

The US has the most advanced marketing PR apparatus in the whole world. They know how to promote stuff. Why are they so inept when it comes to political influence abroad? A hot teenage girl or a smooth homo could actually accomplish a lot of progressive agitation in China today.

August 6, 2017 @ 9:13 pm | Comment

The Chinese government has gave him medical parole and allowed German and American specialists to treat him. It was his choice to stay in China, and certainly China is under no obligation to allow him to die in U.S. as an anti-China martyr.

August 9, 2017 @ 6:56 am | Comment

Opinion Leader: It was his choice to stay in China, and certainly China is under no obligation to allow him to die in U.S. as an anti-China martyr.

China would not let him leave. And Liu was never, ever anti-China. He loved his country and wanted his government to respect the rule of law and to be more representative of its own people. I hate Donald Trump but still love my country (usually). Your comment is ridiculous.

Monolithic: A hot teenage girl or a smooth homo could actually accomplish a lot of progressive agitation in China today.

What on earth are you talking about? “Smooth homo”? That’s nasty rhetoric. About whether or not the CCP is “weak”: The CCP is strong and ruthless, but they are also frightened. Frightened of any sign of dissent or free thinking that might encourage democracy. Cowards, afraid they may lose power. Only cowards would arrest Liu Xiaobo and put him in prison for ten years just because he promoted positive change.

Ferin, I actually agree with most of your comments.

August 13, 2017 @ 3:34 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment