China’s rulers are right to see imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo as a subversive, writes Perry Link. They fully understand that his notion of democratization by peaceful, gradual means would be widely popular – if his ideas were allowed to circulate.
Liu Xiaobo is one of those unusual people who can look at human life from the broadest of perspectives and reason about it from first principles. His keen intellect notices things that others also look at, but do not see. Hardly any topic in Chinese culture, politics, or society evades his interest, and he can write about upsetting things with analytic calm. We might expect such steadiness in a recluse—a hermit poet, a cloistered scholar—but in Liu Xiaobo it comes in an activist. Time and again he has gone where he thinks he should go, and has done what he thinks he should do, as if havoc and the possibility of prison were simply not part of the picture.
Fortunately for his readers, he writes utterly free from fear. Most Chinese writers today, including the best ones, write with political caution in the backs of their minds and under a shadow that looms as they pass their fingers over keyboards. What topics should I not touch? What indirection should I use? Liu Xiaobo does none of this. What he thinks, you get.
His starting points are almost always deeply humane. For example, he analyzes China’s obsession with Olympic gold medals, those shining badges of state-sponsored chauvinism, from the viewpoint of six-year-old divers whose retinas are ruined for life by repeated impacts with the water; he points out that Confucius, for all his fame, in fact ranked last among ancient Chinese thinkers in his sympathy for the poor and oppressed; Liu surveys the political jokes that course through China today and notes that “in a dictatorship, the grins of the people are the nightmares of the dictators.”
At his trial for subversion two years ago, Liu said that the bloody massacre on June 4, 1989, in Beijing was a turning point in his life. Every year since then, on that date, he has written a poem for the lost souls. In one of these he writes that “at that moment, the watching world was as a defenseless lamb/slaughtered by a blazing sun/even God was stupefied, speechless.”
Liu differs from most modern Chinese writers in his attention to transcendent values. He praises the great Chinese writer Lu Xun for an ability to look beyond mundane matters to problems of isolation and despair in the human condition. He describes how, on a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1988, he was suddenly overwhelmed to realize that his preoccupations with the specific problems of China seemed petty when measured against profound challenges to the human spirit.
Liu sees the roots of China’s problems today in its political system, not in its people. He insists that there is no individual person, including any who prosecuted or imprisoned him, is his personal enemy. His ultimate goal is regime change—done peacefully. On this point China’s rulers, who charge him with subverting their power, actually see him correctly. They are also correct in seeing that his ideas would be broadly popular inside China if they were allowed to circulate freely, and that, of course, is why they are so eager to block them. Liu writes that change in China will be slow, but he is optimistic that unrelenting pressure from below—from farmers, petitioners, rights advocates, and, perhaps most important, hundreds of millions of Internet users—eventually will carry the day.
Chinese people have always shown special reverence for Nobel Prizes, in any field, and this fact has made Liu Xiaobo’s Peace Prize especially hard for the regime to swallow. When China’s rulers put on a mask of imperturbability as they denounce Liu’s prize, they are not only trying to deceive the world but, at a deeper level, are lying to themselves. When they seek to counter Liu’s Nobel Prize by inventing a Confucius Peace Prize, and then give it to Vladimir Putin citing his “iron fist” in Chechnya, there is a sense in which we should not blame them for their clownish appearances, because these spring from an inner panic that they themselves cannot control. Liu Xiaobo sits in prison, in physical hardship. But in his moral core, there can be no doubt that he is much more at peace than the men who oppress him.
Perry Link is Chancellorial Chair for Teaching Across Disciplines at the University of California, Riverside, and co-editor – with Tienchi Martin-Liao, senior research analyst at the Laogai Research Foundation, and Liu Xia, the wife of Liu Xiaobo – of No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems of Liu Xiaobo (Harvard University Press, 2012).
The above statement to the Hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China of the 112th Congress of the United States, December 6, 2011, is based on his Introduction to the book.