Home » Arts & Life, criticism, current events, Poetry, politics

The People’s Prisoner

By (April 1, 2012) No Comment

No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems

By Liu Xiaobo, edited by Perry Link, Tienchi Martin-Liao, and Liu Xia, with a foreward by Vaclav Havel
Belknap Press, 2012

Whenever the China’s Communist Party encounters someone or something it doesn’t like, its first and really only reflex is to make it invisible. This has been standard practice for overbearing governments for some time; Josef Stalin was photoshopping enemies out of pictures long before the term existed. China managed to take this practice to a new level, however, when the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to dissident and human rights advocate Liu Xiaobo was given to an empty chair. Though this was the first time a Chinese citizen had been given such an honor, the CPC viewed the accolade as an insult to China and to the principles of the Nobel Prize itself. Liu had recently started his current prison sentence for “incitement of subversion”; his wife, the photographer Liu Xia, was put under house arrest; and any other colleague who could possibly fill that chair was barred from leaving the country. Not since the Nazi regime prevented recipient Carl von Ossietzky and his family from going to Oslo has that ever happened. Still, Chinese authorities could not prevent a photograph of Liu from being projected onto the wall of an Oslo hotel on the day he was awarded the prize—a photo reproduced on the jacket of No Enemies, No Hatred, a recently released collection of Liu’s essays and poems.

Harvard Belknap’s publication of this volume is welcome indeed. Much like Vaclav Havel’s collection Open Letters, No Enemies, No Hatred seeks to give readers the most comprehensive summary of the immense output of this literary scholar and social critic, the availability of which has been limited to Chinese language publications and websites based outside of China, with translations in English being few and far between. The writings span from just before the Tiananmen Square demonstrations to just before his imprisonment 20 years later. The translations are the work by 13 people, with a curious disclaimer at the end of editor Perry Link’s introduction stating that they have not pursued with “word-to-word, or sometimes sentence-to-sentence, literalness,” trying instead to present what “Liu Xiaobo might have written had he been thinking in English.” For whatever quibbles Sinophiles have with this approach, the translations create for English language readers a sense of a man who writes with eloquence, knowledge and moral clarity in the impassioned defense of human rights.

Throughout the collection are allusions to Vaclav Havel’s legacy, made by the editors and by Liu himself. The collection includes Charter 08, influenced by Charter 77, the seminal human rights document that united the dissidents of Czechoslovakia and, in a manner of speaking, publically put the Soviet puppet government on notice. The book’s foreword itself is a shortened article Havel co-wrote commemorating Liu’s Nobel Prize. Like Havel, Liu is a freethinking man of letters unlucky enough to have been born in a totalitarian society. As in Havel’s case, both conditions caused him to gravitate towards political activism. And like Havel, he has developed an almost superhuman resilience in the face of an aggressive and panicky antagonist. Liu even shares Havel’s glamorously unglamorous style of the shabby bookworm who can’t seem to dress properly let alone turn society upside down.

Liu was born in 1955 in Changchun, a city in Jilin Province. He came of age during the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, four years of which was spent with his family on a “people’s commune” in Inner Mongolia. With the schools closed throughout the country and teachers at all levels being stripped of their jobs and even killed, Liu was left to his own devices. He read voraciously, which “allowed [him] freedom” to develop and liberate his intellect far better than he might have had the schools been open. Once they did reopen their doors, Liu studied Chinese literature in Jilin University before going onto Beijing Normal University to earn his M.A. and Ph.D. He soon became a popular lecturer there. Perry Link calls Liu’s doctoral dissertation, Aesthetics and Human Freedom, “a plea for the liberation of the human spirit.” Though it was well received by fellow students and scholars, his continued pleas for liberation became less welcome, especially when the pleas took the form of jeremiads.

Even before he dove completely into political activism, Liu earned a reputation as something of a gadfly academic. His critics referred to him as the “black horse” for his tendency to make contrarian, even damning assessments of the icons of Red China’s literary canon. In 1986, Liu declared in a speech that post-Cultural Revolution literature was in “crisis,” attacking the nostalgic “roots” literature that was popular at the time. Other popular writers such as Hao Ran, Wang Meng and Lin Binyan did not escape his acerbic scrutiny. Liu was able to find intellectual solace in Western thinkers, a diverse array at that, including Isaiah Berlin, Hayek and Heidegger, pacifist revolutionaries Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and Jesus Christ, but in a secular light:

Jesus exemplified opposition without hatred or the desire for retaliation; his heart was filled with boundless love and forgiveness. Completely eschewing violence, he epitomized passive resistance, serenely defiant even as he meekly carried his own cross.

The oldest piece in the book, from 1989, demonstrates Liu’s early contrarianism. In the essay, originally an epilogue to his book Chinese Politics and China’s Modern Intellectuals, he turns to Western thinking to assess the state of China’s intellectual legacy, or lack thereof. Liu minces no words stating that, because of “nationalist blinders … China has produced no world-class intellect in recent times.” And he turns this Sino-centrist disadvantage on himself:

I am unable to enter conversation with advanced, global culture over the fate of humanity as a whole, and I am helpless to pursue individual transcendence of the kind religions offer. I am too practical, too materialist, and remain too bogged down in the backwardness of China’s realities and secular concerns.

Liu is describing a kind of cultural isolation that didn’t die with Mao. Even in the Deng Xiaoping era (1982-1987), Liu saw an unwillingness and inability to engage with the outside world. Western culture, with its “critical attitude towards everything” and its “concern for the fate of all humanity and for the incompleteness of the individual person,” can serve as a remedy in “reforming China in its present state.” This is not to say that Liu is entirely entranced with the Western Enlightenment. Indeed, it should be expected that someone who lived through Mao’s worst policies would be skeptical of utopian thinking, and this collection includes several pointed critiques of Westerners who “flatter China.” One comment in particular seems to be directed toward any given French artist or intellectual in the 1960s, from Julia Kristeva to Jean Luc-Godard to Francois Mitterrand, who were bewitched by Maoism:

Some … look to China for weapons they can use to transform the West. Their mission leads them to embrace a Chinese political language and conceptual system, to strain it through their own Western thought processes, and thence to come upon their own version of “Chinese” culture. The Westerners believe that they are Sinicizing themselves, but in fact they are doing nothing of the sort … to idealize [Chinese culture] with a view to improving the human condition will only cause humanity to regress.

In April 1989, a month after the epilogue was written in New York, Liu returned to Beijing to join the pro-democracy demonstrations that had just gotten underway. By June 2 he and other intellectuals, including the Taiwanese songwriter Hou Dejian, had organized a hunger strike in reaction to the escalating tensions between the demonstrators and the government. Though it is likely a collaboration between the signers, the declaration of the strike displays the tone that Liu would solidify as he turned his focus more and more to politics, a tone that shifts between optimism that someone will at some point do the right thing and polemical condemnation upon seeing that those to whom he is appealing only approach the right thing with open hostility. The declaration castigates the Premier Li Peng and his government for their “mistakes” while showing a certain amount of compassion, stating that while Li should resign “he should continue to enjoy the rights of a citizen, including, if he chooses, the right to continue to advocate his mistaken policies.” Li remained Premier until 1998 and spent another five years as Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

Fifteen years later, after reading the full transcripts of family members of Tiananmen victims, Liu finds his own actions wanting compared to those students who died at the hands of the PLA. “Guilt [sic] feelings stab at my heart like daggers,” he writes, “because it is clear that not one of the people whose lives were so cruelly snuffed out that night was among the ‘elite.’” The transcripts, compiled as part of a project put together by the group Tiananmen Mothers, gives names to faces—many of them students in their mid- to late-20s—and gives a full scope of the incident. The PLA, writes Liu, “fired blindly in all directions,” hitting not just protesters but bystanders and people inside their homes. Troops displayed immense cruelty by preventing bystanders and ambulances from taking care of the people they wounded. Those who didn’t get killed were arrested, often getting prison sentences of a decade or longer, whether they were caught blocking a vehicle or giving a public speech. As with the arrests, many of the victims were students. It takes a great deal of effort to be a hero to Liu, and not even Liu himself meets his standards:

After the massacre, during my eighteen-month stay in Qingcheng Prison, I wrote a ‘confession.’ In doing that I not only sold out my personal dignity, but betrayed the blood sacrifices of the massacre victims.

Even so, after the crackdown he not only served prison time but lost his job at Beijing Normal University. He was subject to surveillance and raids, and his works were banned. Before email was available, he managed to get manuscripts to outside publishers via the fax machine of a foreign friend. Nevertheless, he didn’t stop writing; in fact his work intensified.

At any point in Liu’s development as a dissident-writer, it would seem that the CPC would be able to overpower his voice as they’ve done before with previous dissenters, and Liu knows this. Poet Lin Zhao died by the hand of the Maoist regime in 1968 having tested its tolerance for criticism, and has been more or less forgotten in and out of China. In his letter to her, written 36 years later, Liu grapples with the potentially high toll of standing athwart a dictatorship and is humbled by the staggering amount the poet herself had paid. “I am just a nobody,” he says in comparison. “Your blood is the only spark in the impenetrable darkness, cauterizing my soul,” he goes on, “if, in comparing myself to you, I can claim to have a soul.” It is his sense of kinship with her that draws his best invective. Clearly he can relate to the derailing of her career at Peking University as a result of her stances: “By expelling you, this, the leading educational institution in China, banished itself from academia and reduced itself to a place where court eunuchs convey imperial edicts.”

Tiananmen Square, June 2, 1989

Liu had an advantage over Lin that saved him from being scratched out of Chinese social life: The Internet has given him venues for his writing that were not subject to the Chinese government’s scrutiny. China has made it a priority to limit its citizens’ access to the Internet from creating a “Great Firewall” to imprisoning people. But as Liu points out, the efforts have not been entirely successful:

Unregistered groups are “illegal” under China’s current regime.… This is why Internet websites perform and important role in allowing people—virtually, if not physically—to come together, share ideas, debate, and hammer out consensus of the kind that benefits from the presentation of different points of view. “Virtual meeting” of this kind can also build a camaraderie that is impossible when people are kept atomized or are allowed to meet only at Party-approved gatherings.

The virtual camaraderie has specifically emboldened human rights activists, making it easier for them to create, distribute and get signatories for open letters and other public declarations. Far from the anarchic pirate cove lawmakers and old media moguls of the West depict it as being, the Internet is proof enough for Liu that China yearns more than ever for democratic reform beyond virtual confines.

Liu helped create one of those public statements soon enough. The result, Charter 08, goes the furthest in spelling out what Liu believes a post-communist China should look like, almost reading like the rough draft of a constitution for a yet-to-be-founded republic. It calls for many of the rights found in the American Constitution (checks and balances, separation of powers, freedoms of assembly, association, expression and religion, etc.) as well as for the addressing of contemporary concerns such as fiscal reform, social security, and environmental protection. The Charter gained over 300 signatures including those of writers, workers, human rights activists and even some government officials—12,000 more would sign once it was posted online. Predictably, the Chinese government wasn’t keen on constructive criticism, let alone on the idea of reshaping of its main structure. The Charter was removed from the Internet in China, the signers were detained and harassed by Chinese authorities, and Liu was taken into custody at an undisclosed location.

In the trial following his arrest for Charter 08, six of Liu’s essays were used against him as evidence of subversion of state power, two of which are made a part of this collection. “To Change a Regime by Changing Society” seemed to have been particularly offensive to the regime, but the controversy surrounding it says more about the state of mind of the PRC than about Liu. The crux of the essay is a prescription for basic principles of a liberal democracy that “acknowledges and respects human dignity”; it furthermore advocates as well nonviolent resistance over all other forms of protest. To American ears such sentiments are well-worn to the point of being common sense, uttered with varying degrees of eloquence by politicians and professors alike. Yet it seems China found it alien to its own preferences:

Regardless of how great the freedom-denying power of a regime and its institutions is, every individual should still fight to the best of his/her ability to live as a free person, that is, make every effort to live an honest life with dignity. In any society ruled by dictatorship, when those who pursue freedom publically disclose it and practice what they preach, as long as they manage to be fearless in the small details of everyday life, what they say and do in everyday life will become the fundamental force that will topple the system of enslavement.

“A Deeper Look into Why Child Slavery in China’s ‘Black Kilns’ Could Happen” is a far more damning piece, revealing the inherent contradictions of modern communist China: a 21st century nation with an aggressive, ineptly regulated 19th century-style economic boom, run by an ideology created to correct that very aggression. The events depicted in the essay were well known before it was written. It had long been rumored that the black kilns in Henan province were staffed with children who had been kidnapped and forced to work. It took the efforts of local television reporters, at the insistence of bereaved parents, to confirm these rumors, sending shockwaves throughout China and the world, and prompting the government to step in, freeing up to 70 children and a few hundred adults. Liu’s concern, however, was that the action was outweighed by inaction. He calls the outcome of the investigation “perfunctory and superficial,” noting that no one involved was charged with abduction, slavery or child abuse. The kilns scandal was a grotesque springboard for Liu to excoriate a government that was mired with in a poisonous combination of repressive cruelty and bureaucratic incompetence. The SARS outbreak, water pollution, toxic food panics, and the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 all pointed to “an authoritarian government that neglects to take action and then concentrates on concealing its inaction.”

The more Liu writes on China’s internal corruption and policy failures, the more he reveals that the devil in China’s details is far less devilish and far more incompetent—though no less sinister for that. Yet more important than Liu’s pointing up of China’s faults is his appreciation for the culture that China does not care to promote. As free market China has been unable to shed its communist authoritarianism, so too has it failed to rid itself of its intolerance of cultural diversity. As much as Liu relishes in attacking those artists and intellectuals who have been absorbed by what he calls the “long tradition of China’s power-holders using cultural figures to buy popular favor to enhance their power” and eulogizing those who died refusing to do so, his training as a literary critic does not fail him in examining with great joy and detail those emerging subversive trends that are beyond the party’s control.

In “The Erotic Carnival in Recent Chinese History” and “From Weng Shou’s Wicked Satire to Hu Ge’s Egao: Political Humor in a Post-Totalitarian Dictatorship,” Liu expounds on two phenomena that prove challenging to the party but are unavoidable outcomes of its post-Mao trajectory.

“Erotic Carnival” is an extensive study of one of the major side effects of China’s market reforms: the boom of sex, money and pop culture. In the decades following Tiananmen Square, China gradually a exchanged left-wing revolution for a capitalism-propelled right-wing revolution. The erotic carnival that Liu describes isn’t so much sexual as it is sensational. In the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s call for “liberation of thought” there came a steady stream of books, songs and films from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan which offered a stark alternative to the drab state-mandated high culture and “class struggle” mindset. Chinese artists began producing their own popular works, many of them sexual in nature but often striving for the loftier goal of breaking “political taboos.” Recent history, Liu notes, has seen an acceleration of this entertainment, from the female-driven “pretty-girl” novels which graphically detail, in fiction and nonfiction, the sexual exploits of young women, to the more sinister chauvinism of “nationalist hate” in which people, whether in public or on the Internet, use patriotism as a justification for sexually abuse and the censure of women who appear un-Chinese, specifically those who appear Japanese.

But though Liu sees some improvement in redirecting the Chinese from an over-managed culture, he worries that such sexual content is ultimately regressive:

… the idea of sexual freedom did not support political democracy so much as it harked back to the traditions of sexual abandon in China’s imperial times. It siphoned interest in freedom toward thoughts of concubinage, elegant prostitution, and the bedroom arts as they are celebrated in premodern pornography.

Liu finds more redeeming value in the concurrent cultural phenomenon of egao, which “uses parody, twisted meanings, and odd juxtapositions to produce an ‘air of absurdity’ that pokes fun at tradition, authority, famous people, fashions, and major public events.” In other words it’s like any other form of satire, only not as entrenched in literary tradition as in the West, having seemingly appeared overnight alongside China’s industrial and cultural boom (and with the advent of the Internet). Though egao itself is rooted in the sarcasm-infused works of songwriter Cui Jian and author Wang Shuo, it has come into full blossom on the Internet. Video parodies of everything from Ang Lee films to “red classics” get millions of hits. In 2005, “ordinary netizen” Hu Ge uploaded a short parody of the popular film The Promise, called, in a rather awkward translation, The Bloody Case That a Steamed Bun Caused and became an immediate Internet sensation. This hasn’t stopped authorities from intervening, preventing an attempt to satirize Mao-era national hero Lei Feng and arresting then-college student Liu Di for her sardonic, Colbert-esque writings mocking CPC dogma and jargon.

Liu’s glee for egao is tempered somewhat by the reservations its own practitioners have about the form; they worry that in subverting authority egao does little else than “exacerbate cynicism.” One might be tempted to consider “cynicism” a synonym for “American.” China’s literary history has no Ambrose Bierce or Mark Twain to make scathing irony the norm for clever discourse. Hence, something that is so common, almost traditional, in America is given the most extreme rendering in China by Liu:

Egao in post-totalitarian China is a symptom of spiritual hunger and intellectual poverty at the same time. It can be seen as a kind of psychosomatic drug, something that works hand-in-hand with the vacuous comedy shows that the official media present, except that it can be more effective than those in its power to anesthetize. People can get drunk laughing at one political joke after another that tells about suffering, corruption and unhappiness … One can even say that the laughter egao induces is a heartless kind, something that buries people’s senses of justice and their normal human sympathies.

But Liu is not convinced by such fatalism. Indeed, he holds the view more popular in the West that satire is a perfect weapon of resistance against state power, just as it was deployed against the Soviet Union by the writers like Stanisław Lec and Milan Kundera.

Reading about Liu Xiaobo’s China in these essays, one gains at least a foundational understanding of how two-faced its society is. On the one hand there’s the face China prefers to show: that of the savvy and formidable world power whose cooperation is crucial to assuring stability in its region. On the other hand there’s the face most of the Chinese see: that of a country as a formerly repressed and now corrupt youth, liberated and overzealous in its drive to catch up to the rest of the world and to experience all that it was sheltered from under Mao. Liu’s primary achievement is showing how these two faces are incompatible, and possibly mutually destructive.

No Enemies, No Hatred concludes not with a piece by Liu, but a document from the People’s Court handing down the verdict in his trial. The evidence, the court states, shows Liu’s “dissatisfaction with the People’s Democratic Dictatorship [sic] and the socialist system in our country.” Despite Liu’s straightforward defense that he was only exercising his “right of freedom of speech that the constitution grants to its citizens” (chap. II, art. 35) which would make such a case a waste of time in any US court, let alone a criminal court, the verdict seemed like a foregone conclusion. A panel of three judges found him guilty, confiscated his writings (to little effect, obviously), and sentenced him to a term in prison ending on June 21, 2020. He is currently serving out that sentence. As Link notes in his introduction, little is known about the conditions of Liu’s imprisonment, but a human rights group in China claims that his access to the outside world (through family and media) is more limited than usual and that he his enduring “chronic hepatitis and stomach problems” with medical treatment that is also limited.

This is not to say that the court was wrong in its judgment. Liu is dissatisfied with the People’s Democratic Dictatorship, to say the least, and he is advocating for the reform, if not the overthrow, of China’s government. Few could miss the irony of a nation that has endured multiple armed uprisings since at least 1850 being so alarmed over the most peaceful Chinese rebel in recent memory, though it’s not hard to see why. As streets in Moscow, Damascus, Tehran and Cairo are crowded with supporters of liberal democracy, the CPC’s grip is as tight as ever, and it maintains a highly restricted peace unshaken by mass demonstrations as dramatic as those in 1989. (According to The Atlantic, China has roughly 500 protests every day, but they are usually small in scale, narrow in scope, and less antagonistic to the CPC system.)

Liu’s vision for China is sweeping, even epic. Its expression harkens not to the theoretical obfuscation of Mao, but to the clarity of Thomas Paine and Niccolò Machiavelli. Like their works, Liu’s comes at a critical time: when Western citizens need to truly learn about the multitudes that define the rising superpower that is Liu’s China; and when they need to be led not just by a rousing voice but by a guiding one.

Chris R. Morgan is the editor of Biopsy magazine.

Leave a comment!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also Comments Feed via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.