China’s treatment of its Nobel Peace Prize laureate, writer, literary critic, and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, raises difficult and penetrating questions, writes Kerry Brown
The loss of Liu Xiaobo is a tragedy. For him, a personal tragedy but there are far wider ramifications.
The final decade of his life was spent in jail. The books he could have written, the contribution he could have made to Chinese and global society, the influence he could have had as a highly regarded public intellectual.
The silencing of Liu has robbed Chinese society of an important, forensically sharp, and creative voice at a time of huge internal change when it needed diversity of opinion.
The outside world has been robbed of the perspective of a truly authentic, engaged, highly erudite and insightful scholar. The body of work that Liu published in Chinese and English before his incarceration provided immensely useful insight for understanding the complexities of China’s current position. More of this would have been very helpful. But it was not to be.
That he died suffering from terminal cancer is just about the worst possible outcome for the Chinese government. Eight years into his 11-year sentence, the world saw heart-breaking photos of him and his wife, Liu Xia, while he undertook palliative treatment in hospital and received some kind of care.
Stain on China’s reputation
While Xi Jinping, China’s president, attended the G20 in Hamburg, back home a man in a hospital ward in the north-eastern city of Shenyang was making the sort of headlines that the Chinese government would have preferred to avoid during its new era of global influence.
The Chinese state often talks about win-win outcomes. In the case of Liu, it has turned out to be lose-lose. No one comes out of this happily. For Liu, his family and friends, the situation is very obviously a terrible tragedy. For the Chinese government, who of course will be blamed for the entire situation, it is a great stain on its reputation.
We have to remember the crime that Liu was said to have committed. He never physically harmed any one. He never stole. He was never accused of blackmail or bribing or breaking any law recognisable under most standard justice systems.
His crime was subversion of the state. And the evidence for this was articles he wrote on websites, most of which were blocked in China and had no more than a few hundred readers.
When we reflect on the meaning of Liu’s case, we have to wonder why it was that every step of the way over eight years, right to the end, the Chinese government did not compromise, despite paying a huge price in terms of its reputation and image.
Since the Olympics in 2008 in Beijing, the Chinese state has poured huge resources into promoting itself abroad. Under Xi Jinping, it has made a concerted effort to communicate the ways in which its role in the world is now beneficial and positive. At the same time, this one case gave its most implacable enemies endless ammunition.
The horrible irony was that this was the first-ever peace prize to a citizen of China, resident and also in detention
Take, for instance, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu. The horrible irony was that this was the first-ever such prize to a citizen of China, resident and also in detention. For a government that had been pursuing its dream of getting Nobel recognition for decades, this was a huge slap in the face. But its management of the issue afterwards made a bad situation even worse.
Liu became for Chinese officials a symbol of how they would not bow to Western pressure. In a sense, he became a test case for how emboldened they felt in the face of criticism about their rights record. So, the refusal to allow him to attend the Oslo ceremony, and the empty seat that was used to represent him, was a powerful and emotive symbol. A single image represented just how problematic Chinese government treatment of rights issues had become.
On top of this, there was the treatment of Liu Xia in the years since. Her incarceration in her own home despite never being accused of a single crime summed up the zero-sum approach of the Chinese security apparatus. Images of her weeping in the street, reports of her deep depression, and sporadic stories about her pitiful condition, provided a parallel, contradictory narrative to the bolder, positive message China was trying to spread under its new leadership.
One of the most worrying aspects of the Liu case is how it points, not to the Chinese government’s strength and confidence, but to its weakness.
As uncertainty spreads everywhere, the world is increasingly inclined to want and to believe in a China that is stable, predictable and confident. The fact the Chinese state has been willing, right until today, to expend so much precious political capital, such disproportionate effort on this case, looked like tangible evidence of a mighty party state rattled by the actions of one man.
The answer lies in trenchant comments that appeared in Liu’s essays
Western leaders have to contend every hour of every day with fierce and sometimes savage criticism, without recourse to placing their opponents in jail, yet China made such an effort to deal with a single individual? The question this inevitably provokes is a simple one: why were they so frightened?
The answer lies in trenchant comments that appeared in Liu’s essays. For him, what broadly typified the Western posture towards politics and culture was a sceptical, questioning attitude. He contrasted this with a much more managed, coerced contemporary Chinese practice.
Questions will linger
Liu’s work repays attention, as does his case. His treatment after his leading role in the demand for more human rights in Charter 08 generates endless, worrying questions about the control of the ruling Communist Party in China, and their mandate.
These are questions they have so far responded to by simply closing down debate, silencing Liu and people like him. One wonders how this approach can be sustained.
From the Oslo 2010 ceremony, from society in China during his imprisonment, and now through his death, it is Liu’s absence that proves so powerful. This is remarkable.
Liu’s contribution is to leave unanswered questions lingering for years to come. These questions, which can perhaps be evaded but not ultimately avoided, relate to the real inner confidence and conviction of the political system that imprisoned him. His final disappearance will not stop these questions, only make them more penetrating and difficult to answer.
In his life, Liu worried the Chinese state. With his demise, Liu’s questions should worry us all.
Featured image: Protest in Hong Kong in support of Liu Xiaobo at Charter 08 Photo: Pedesbiz Source: Wikimedia Commons