He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny

Better than the assent of the crowd: The dissent of one brave man!
—Sima Qian (145–90 BC)
Records of the Grand Historian

Truth will set you free.
—Gospel according to John

The economic rise of China now dominates the entire landscape of international affairs. In the eyes of political analysts and statesmen, China is seen as potentially “the world’s largest economic power by 2019.” Experts from financial institutions suggest an even earlier date for such a prognosis: “China,” one has said, “will become the largest economy in the world by 2016.” This fast transformation is rightly called “the Chinese miracle.” The general consensus, in China as well as abroad, is that the twenty-first century will be “China’s century.” International statesmen fly to Peking, while businessmen from all parts of the developed world are rushing to Shanghai and other provincial metropolises in the hope of securing deals. Europe is begging China to come to the rescue of its ailing currency.

All thinking people wish now to obtain at least some basic understanding of the deeper dynamics that underlie this sudden and stupendous metamorphosis: What are its true nature and significance? To what extent is it viable and real? Where is it heading? Bookshops are now submerged by a tidal wave of new publications attempting to provide information about China, and yet there is (it seems to me) one new book whose reading should be of urgent and essential importance, both for the specialist and for the general reader alike—the new collection of essays by Liu Xiaobo, judiciously selected, translated, and presented by very competent scholars, whose work greatly benefited from their personal acquaintance with the author.1

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 brought the name of Liu Xiaobo to the attention of the entire world. Yet well before that, he had already achieved considerable fame within China, as a fearless and clearsighted public intellectual and the author of some seventeen books, including collections of poetry and literary criticism as well as political essays.2 The Communist authorities unwittingly vouched for the uncompromising accuracy of his comments. They kept arresting him for his views—four times since the Tiananmen massacre in June 1989. Now he is again in jail, since December 2008; though in poor health, he is subjected to an especially severe regime. As Pascal said, “Trust witnesses willing to sacrifice their lives,” and this particular witness happens to be exceptionally well qualified in other ways as well, both by the depth of his information and experience, and by his qualities of intelligence and moral fortitude.

* * *

Born in 1955 in northeastern China, Liu truly belongs to the generation of “Mao’s children,” which, by an interesting paradox, eventually produced the boldest dissenters and most articulate activists in favor of democracy—for example, Wei Jingsheng, hero of the Democracy Wall episode in Peking between 1978 and 1979, who spent eighteen harsh years in prison before being exiled to the West.3 Liu Xiaobo pays frequent homage to these early pioneers. He was too young to participate in the Cultural Revolution, but this movement—ironically—had a positive impact upon his life.

Like most intellectuals, his parents, who were teachers, were deported to a collective farm in the countryside; having followed them there, Liu was mercifully deprived for several years of all conventional schooling. He was to appreciate it in retrospect: these years of lost schooling “allowed me freedom.” Escaping the indoctrination of Maoist pedagogy, he read at random a huge variety of books—all the printed matter he could lay his hands on—and thus discovered the principle that was to guide him from then on: one must think for oneself.

After Mao’s death, universities were at long last allowed to reopen; in 1977 Liu joined the first group of students admitted again into higher education, first in his home province, later on at Peking Normal University. He pursued studies in Chinese literature with great success; finally, eleven years later, after obtaining his doctorate, he was appointed to a teaching post in the same university. His original mind, vast intellectual curiosity, and gifts for expression ensured a brilliant academic career; quite early, he reached a large audience extending far beyond the classroom, and acquired the reputation of an enfant terrible in the Chinese cultural world.

In the debates over literature and ideas, his views were refreshingly free from dogmatic convention; yet at this early stage, he did not get involved in political issues. The turning point of his development took place in 1989, with the Tiananmen massacre on June 4 and its aftermath. Shortly before, Liu’s reputation as an original critic of ideas had brought him invitations abroad. Meanwhile, in Peking, the movement of political protest and demands for democratic reform were gathering momentum: a huge crowd of students together with their enthusiastic supporters and sympathizers had gathered and camped on Tiananmen Square, the very heart of the capital.

At that moment, Liu Xiaobo was in New York, having accepted an invitation to teach political science at Columbia’s Barnard College. Like many Chinese intellectuals before him, Liu had first idealized the West; however, his experiences, first in Europe and then in the United States, soon shattered his illusions. During a visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, he experienced a sort of epiphany that crystallized the turmoil of his latest self-questioning: he realized the shallowness of his own learning in the light of the fabulous riches of the diverse civilizations of the past, and simultaneously perceived the inadequacy of contemporary Western answers to mankind’s modern predicament. His own dream that Westernization could be used to reform China suddenly appeared to him as pathetic as the attitude of “a paraplegic laughing at a quadriplegic,” he confessed at the time:

My tendency to idealize Western civilization arises from my nationalistic desire to use the West in order to reform China. But this has led me to overlook the flaws of Western culture…. I have been obsequious toward Western civilization, exaggerating its merits, and at the same time exaggerating my own merits. I have viewed the West as if it were not only the salvation of China but also the natural and ultimate destination of all humanity. Moreover I have used this delusional idealism to assign myself the role of savior….

I now realize that Western civilization, while it can be useful in reforming China in its present stage, cannot save humanity in an overall sense.

If we stand back from Western civilization for a moment, we can see that it possesses all the flaws of humanity in general….

If I, as a person who has lived under China’s autocratic system for more than thirty years, want to reflect on the fate of humanity or how to be an authentic person, I have no choice but to carry out two critiques simultaneously. I must:

1. Use Western civilization as a tool to critique China.

2. Use my own creativity to critique the West.

While Liu was still in New York, the student movement in Peking continued to develop, not realizing that it was now set on a collision course with the hard-line faction of the Communist leadership—the faction to which Deng Xiaoping was finally to give free rein. But Liu sensed that a crisis would soon be reached, and he made a grave and generous decision: he gave up the safety and comfort of his New York academic appointment and rushed back to Peking. He did not leave the square during the last dramatic days of the students’ demonstration; he desperately tried to persuade them that democratic politics must be “politics without hatred and without enemies,” and simultaneously, after martial law was imposed, he negotiated with the army in the hope of obtaining a peaceful evacuation of the square.

* * *

Thanks to his intervention, countless lives were saved, though in the end he could not prevent wider carnage—we still don’t know how many students, innocent bystanders, and even volunteer rescuers disappeared during the bloodbath of that final night.4 Liu himself was arrested in the street three days after the massacre and imprisoned without trial for the next two years. He came out of jail a changed man. He was dismissed from the university and banned from publishing and from giving any public lectures within China.

Owing to the Internet, however (“the Internet is truly God’s gift to the Chinese people,” as he was to say later on), he was able to develop a new career as a freelance commentator on Chinese society and culture. His articles and essays were published overseas in various Chinese-language periodicals (mostly in Hong Kong and Taiwan); and within China itself, he reached a wide readership through the Web, which still frustrates official censorship. His influence and prestige among Chinese dissidents culminated in December 2008 with his sponsorship of Charter 08—a collective document inspired by the example set thirty years earlier in Communist Czechoslovakia by Václav Havel and his friends, Charter 77.

Charter 08 is a model of moderation and cool reason: it spells out the basic principles and fundamental rights that should inspire China’s long-overdue political reform: an ideal of democracy, humanism, and nonviolence, institutionally guaranteed by separation of powers, freedom of opinion, “free and fair competition among political parties,” and the establishment of a federal republic (which, in fact, had already been envisioned a century ago, when the first Chinese republic was established).

There is nothing in such a program that should appear radical or inflammatory. Zhao Ziyang—former Chinese prime minister (1980–1987), former general secretary of the Communist Party (1987–1989), and the main architect of the first movement of reform and opening to the outside world in the post-Mao era—came in his final years to express views that are remarkably similar to those of Charter 08.5 At the end of his life, during his enforced internal exile, Zhao came to the conclusion—clearly expressed in his political testament—that the Chinese political system needed to be reformed:

“Dictatorship of the proletariat” has become a rigid, purely formal structure, protecting the tyranny of a minority—or of a single person; the way of the future, towards true modernization, is parliamentary democracy—on the Western model. This transformation would probably require a fairly long period of transition; yet it is feasible, as it is already shown by the examples of Taiwan and South Korea….6

* * *

All the essays of Liu Xiaobo included in the present volume deal with a period of twenty years—from Tiananmen to Charter 08. During this period, though several times arrested and detained without trial, Liu was active in freelance political journalism. Having no regular employment, he managed to make a precarious living with his pen.7

Some of the essays focus on specific events, from which the author draws deeper lessons; others address broader sociopolitical and cultural issues, which are then illustrated with examples drawn from current incidents.

A good example of the first type is provided by an important article exposing the horrendous case of the “Black Kilns.” (Later on, at Liu’s last trial, this was one of the six essays adduced as evidence of his criminal attempt at “subversion of state power.”) In May 2007, parents of children who had gone missing in Henan province reported their disappearance to courageous local television journalists. It turned out that operators of the brick kilns in Shanxi province had organized large kidnapping networks to supply their kilns with slave labor, and local authorities in two provinces had apparently been complicit in these criminal rackets.

The police proved singularly inept in their attempt to dismantle these abominable networks: only a small number of children were found and rescued—10 percent of the more than one thousand missing. Penal sanctions, which are usually ruthless in dealing with dissent from Party authority, were glaringly perfunctory and superficial: ninety-five Party members and public officials were involved, but they were merely subjected to “Party discipline,” and not to criminal charges. Higher officials only received “serious warning from the Party.” Liu concludes: “The mighty government, with all of its advantages and vast resources, is not ready to do battle with the Chinese underworld.” The main concern of the Communist Party, he writes, is to maintain its tight monopoly over all public power. Officials at every level are appointed, promoted, or dismissed at the exclusive will of a private group: the Party itself.

The first priority of officials is always to serve the higher-ups (because, in effect, this serves oneself) and not to serve the people below.

As for the judicial system—also used by the Party to protect its monopoly of power—it is utterly reluctant to tackle issues involving the alliance between the Party and the underworld:

In China the underworld and officialdom have interpenetrated and become one. Criminal elements have become officialized as officials have become criminalized. Underworld chiefs carry tittles in the National People’s Congress and the People’s Political Consultative Conference, while civil officials rely on the underworld to keep the lid on local society.

* * *

Another essay deals with the “Land Problem.” In the Mao era, farmers lost their land and were reduced to virtual serfdom in the “communes.” They were bound to work on land that was no longer theirs. During the catastrophic madness of the Great Leap Forward the poverty of the farmers reached the point where they did not have food to eat or clothes to wear. In some places people were driven to cannibalism. More than forty million people starved to death during the great Mao-made famine of 1958–1962. Not long after Mao died in 1976, a “half-baked liberation” of the serfs took place: farmers were given the right not to own land but to use it, unless farmland needed to be “developed” and it then reverted to state property.

Officials wielding the power of the state and invoking “government- ownership of land” have colluded with businessmen all across our country…. The biggest beneficiaries of the resultant land deals, at all levels, have been the Communist regime and the power elite…. Farmers are the weakest among the weak. Without a free press and an independent judiciary, they have no public voice, no right to organize farmers’ associations, and no means of legal redress…. And that is why, when all recourse within the system…is stifled, people are naturally drawn to collective action outside the system….

Most of the major clashes that have broken out in China in recent years have pitted commoners against officials. Most have occurred at the grassroots in the countryside, and most have been about land. Local officials, protecting the vested interests of the power elite, have been willing to use a range of savage means, drawing on government violence as well as on the violence of the criminal underworld, to repress the uprisings.

* * *

Apart from Liu’s essays dealing with injustices and various forms of criminal abuses of power, other articles address more general questions: for instance, the meaning and implications of the rise of China as a great power, still a matter of great uncertainty. The very rapid growth of a market economy and people’s increased awareness of private property rights have generated enormous popular demand for more freedom, and this ultimately might have an effect on China’s international position. On the other hand, the Communist government’s

jealous defense of its dictatorial system and of the special privileges of the power elite has become the biggest obstacle to movement in the direction of freedom…. As long as China remains a dictatorial one-party state, it will never “rise” to become a mature civilized country….

The Chinese Communists…are concentrating on economics, seeking to make themselves part of globalization, and are courting friends internationally precisely by discarding their erstwhile ideology.

At home, they defend their dictatorial system any way they can, [whereas abroad] they have become a blood-transfusion machine for a host of other dictatorships…. When the “rise” of a large dictatorial state that commands rapidly increasing economic strength meets with no effective deterrence from outside, but only an attitude of appeasement from the international mainstream, and if the Communists succeed in once again leading China down a disastrously mistaken historical road, the results will not only be another catastrophe for the Chinese people, but likely also a disaster for the spread of liberal democracy in the world. If the international community hopes to avoid these costs, free countries must do what they can to help the world’s largest dictatorship transform itself as quickly as possible into a free and democratic country.

Yet what hope is there for such a transformation to take place? The regime itself is rigid. After more than twenty years of “reform,” the only feature of Maoist ideology that is being unconditionally retained by the Communist Party is the principle of its absolute monopoly over political power. There is no prospect that any organization will be able to muster the political force sufficient to bring regime change anytime soon. Liu writes: “There is…no sign, within the ruling elite of an enlightened figure like Mikhail Gorbachev or Chiang Ching-kuo, who…helped turn the USSR and Taiwan toward democracy.” Civil society is unable to produce in the near term a political organization that might replace the Communist regime.

* * *

In an essay titled “To Change a Regime by Changing a Society” (also cited as evidence in his criminal trial), Liu spells out his hopes: political tyranny would remain, but the people would no longer be ignorant or atomized; there would be a new awareness of solidarity in the face of injustice, and a common indignation provoked by the blatant corruption and the various abuses of power committed by local authorities. There would be new advances in civic courage, greater awareness of people’s rights. Also greater economic independence fosters more freedom on the part of citizens to move, to acquire, and to share information.

The Internet in particular enables exchanges and diffusion of ideas in ways that largely escape government censorship; government control of thought and speech grows less and less effective.8 To become a free society, the only road for China can be that of a gradual improvement from the bottom up. This gradual transformation of society will eventually force a transformation of the regime.

However, in direct contradiction to such hopes, Liu also bleakly describes the spiritual desert of the urban culture in “post-totalitarian China.” The authorities, he writes, are enforcing a rigorous amnesia of the recent past. The Tiananmen massacre has been entirely erased from the minds of a new generation—while crude nationalism is being whipped up from time to time to distract attention from more disturbing issues. Literature, magazines, films, and videos all overflow with sex and violence reflecting “the moral squalor of our society.”

China has entered an Age of Cynicism in which people no longer believe in anything…. Even high officials and other Communist Party members no longer believe Party verbiage. Fidelity to cherished beliefs has been replaced by loyalty to anything that brings material benefit. Unrelenting inculcation of Chinese Communist Party ideology has…produced generations of people whose memories are blank….

The post-Tiananmen urban generation, raised with prospects of moderately good living conditions [have now as their main goals] to become an official, get rich, or go abroad…. They have no patience at all for people who talk about suffering in history…. A huge Great Leap famine? A devastating Cultural Revolution? A Tiananmen massacre? All of this criticizing of the government and exposing of the society’s “dark side” is, in their view, completely unnecessary. They prefer to use their own indulgent lifestyles plus the stories that officialdom feeds them as proof that China has made tremendous progress.

I know of Western liberals who, confronted with the extreme puritanism of the Maoist era, naively assumed that, after long repression, sexual liberation was bound to explode sooner or later and would act like dynamite and open the way toward a freer society. Now an “erotic carnival” (Liu’s words) of sex, violence, and greed is indeed sweeping through the entire country, but—as Liu describes it—this wave merely reflects the moral collapse of a society that has been emptied of all values during the long years of its totalitarian brutalization: “The craze for political revolution in decades past has now turned into a craze for money and sex.”

Some on the left attribute the present spiritual and moral emptiness of Chinese society to the spread of the market and to globalization, which are also blamed for China’s enormous corruption. On the contrary, Liu shows that the deep roots of today’s cynicism, hedonism, and moral bankruptcy must be traced back to the Mao era. It was then, at a time that leftist nostalgia now paints as one of moral purity, that the nation’s spirit suffered its worst devastation; the regime was

antihumane and antimoral…. The cruel “struggle” that Mao’s tyranny infused throughout society caused people to scramble to sell their souls: hate your spouse, denounce your father, betray your friend, pile on a helpless victim, say anything to remain “correct.” The blunt, unreasoning bludgeons of Mao’s political campaigns, which arrived in an unending parade, eventually demolished even the most commonplace of ethical notions in Chinese life.

This pattern has abated in the post-Mao years, but it has far from disappeared. After the Tiananmen massacre, the campaign of compulsory amnesia once again forced people to betray their consciences in public shows of loyalty. “If China has turned into a nation of people who lie to their own consciences, how can we possibly build healthy public values?” And Liu concludes:

The inhumanity of the Mao era, which left China in moral shambles, is the most important cause of the widespread and oft-noted “values vacuum” that we observe today. In this situation sexual indulgence becomes a handy partner for a dictatorship that is trying to stay on top of a society of rising prosperity…. The idea of sexual freedom did not support political democracy so much as it harked back to traditions of sexual abandon in China’s imperial times…. This has been just fine with today’s dictators. It fits with the moral rot and political gangsterism that years of hypocrisy have generated, and it diverts the thirst for freedom into a politically innocuous direction.

* * *

In a last short piece written in November 2008, Liu looked “Behind the ‘China Miracle.’” Following the Tiananmen massacre, Deng Xiaoping attempted to restore his authority and to reassert his regime’s legitimacy after both had melted away because of the massacre. He set out to build his power through economic growth. As the economy began to flourish, many officials saw an opportunity to make sudden and enormous profits; their unscrupulous pursuit of private gain became the engine of the ensuing economic boom. The most highly profitable of the state monopolies have fallen into the hands of small groups of powerful officials. The Communist Party has only one principle left: any action can be justified if it upholds the dictatorship or results in greater spoils. Liu concludes:

In sum, China’s economic transformation, which from the outside can appear so vast and deep, in fact is frail and superficial…. The combination of spiritual and material factors that spurred political reform in the 1980s—free-thinking intellectuals, passionate young people, private enterprise that attended to ethics, dissidents in society, and a liberal faction within the Communist Party—have all but vanished. In their place we have a single-barreled economic program that is driven only by lust for profit.

One month after writing this, on December 8, 2008, Liu was arrested and eventually charged with “inciting subversion of state power”—whereas his only activity was, and has always been, simply to express his opinions. After a parody of a trial—which the public was not allowed to attend—he was sentenced to eleven years in jail on December 25, 2009.9 When, one year later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Chinese authorities acted hysterically: his wife, his friends, and his acquaintances were all subjected to various forms of arbitrary detention to ensure that none of them would be able to go to Oslo to collect the prize on his behalf. Today his wife, Liu Xia, is in her second year of house arrest without charges. These dramatic measures had one clear historical precedent: in 1935, the Nazi authorities gave the same treatment to the jailed political dissenter Carl von Ossietsky.10

At the Oslo ceremony, an empty chair was substituted for the absent laureate. Within hours, the words “empty chair” were banned from the Internet in China—wherever they occurred, the entire machinery of censorship was automatically set in motion.

Foreign experts in various intelligence organizations are trying to assess the growing strength of China, politically, economically, and militarily. The Chinese leaders are most likely to have a clear view of their own power. If so, why are they so scared of a frail and powerless poet and essayist, locked away in jail, cut off from all human contacts? Why did the mere sight of his empty chair at the other end of the Eurasian continent plunge them into such a panic?11

  1. Two books, actually; a similar (yet not identical) collection, in French, appeared earlier in 2011: Liu Xiaobo, La philosophie du porc et autres essais, selected, translated, and introduced by Jean-Philippe Béja (Paris: Gallimard). Since the contents of both volumes do not completely overlap, one would wish for a third collection that could combine both. For more information on Liu himself—his life, activities, arrest, and trial, see Perry Link, Liu Xiaobo's Empty Chair (New York Review Books e-book, 2011).
  2. A new collection of his poetry, translated by Jeffrey Yang, will be published as June Fourth Elegies in April by Graywolf.
  3. Wei Jingsheng (born in 1950) roamed through China as a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution: he discovered then the abyss of misery and black despair in which the Maoist insanity had plunged the countryside. This early revelation eventually led him to post on the Democracy Wall his momentous manifesto "The Fifth Modernization: Democracy" (1978). He was immediately arrested (advocating democracy in China is a crime) and spent eighteen years in jail, suffering very harsh treatment—in turns, hard labor and solitary confinement. Freed in 1997, he was forced into exile, and lives now in the West. On this subject see Wei Jingsheng, The Courage to Stand Alone: Letters from Prison and Other Writings ( Viking, 1997). The book was reviewed by Liu Binyan, The New York Review, July 17, 1997.
  4. On orders of authorities, many unidentified bodies were secretly buried or burned. State-enforced amnesia suppressed immediately the entire atrocity with frightful efficiency. Though the outside world was stunned at first, its memory did not last very long. Yet—as Fang Lizhi recalled here not long ago (The New York Review, November 10, 2011)—at the height of the "Arab Spring," Colonel Qaddafi thought that it was right to pay retrospective homage to the wisdom of the Tiananmen butchers.
  5. Zhao Ziyang had opposed the martial law orders that were to lead directly to the Tiananmen massacre; as a result, Deng Xiaoping had him dismissed from office and put under house arrest till the end of his life (2005). During his final years, Zhao made a secret recording on tape of his memoirs; this recording was authenticated, introduced, and distributed abroad by his close collaborator and secretary Bao Tong. See the American edition, Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang, translated from the Chinese and edited by Bao Pu, Renee Chiang, and Adi Ignatius, with a foreword by Roderick MacFarquhar (Simon and Schuster, 2009). The book was reviewed by Jonathan Mirsky, The New York Review, July 2, 2009.
  6. "...Given the reality in China, we need a relatively long period of transition. The experiences of other Asian nations are worthy of our attention in this regard. For example, territories and nations such as Taiwan and South Korea have gradually made the transition from their old systems to a parliamentary system, and have had positive experiences that we would benefit from studying." Zhao Ziyang, Prisoner of the State, p. 271.
  7. He said, "The Internet is like a magic engine, and it has helped my writing to erupt like a geyser. Now I can even live off what I write."
  8. There are more than 450 million Internet users in China. This entails political possibilities that terrify the authorities. Liu says, "Now, with my computer, I am connected with the entire world in a way that used to be inconceivable. The computer makes information gathering, consultation with others, composition of essays, and submission of manuscripts all much easier.... The Internet has brought new strength to public opinion.... [It] has made possible a kind of 'freedom of assembly' in cyberspace."
  9. On December 23, 2011, the writer Chen Wei, who had been arrested in February after posting essays online calling for freedom of speech and other political reforms, was convicted of the same crime of "inciting of subversion of state power" and sentenced, following a two-hour trial, to nine years in prison.
  10. Other Nobel laureates were also prevented from going to Oslo: Andrei Sakharov, Lech Wałesa, and Aung San Suu Kyi were able at least to delegate personal representatives to attend the ceremony on their behalf. Boris Pasternak had to renounce the prize in 1958, but stayed out of prison. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was not imprisoned after he was awarded the prize in 1970, and he accepted it after he left the Soviet Union in 1974.
  11. The reader will find that I pose a question of my own about a different country in the Letters section of this issue.