MARCH 9, 2012
THE 20TH CENTURY WAS MARKED by near-absolute totalitarian political systems in massive industrial societies. It was also a time for dissidents to rise and broadcast their dissent to their societies and the world. These dissidents exposed the true ugliness of tyrannical regimes. They are often our most cogent lens for seeing the endless strategies of spreading fear and administering punishment typical of many regimes then and today — the strategies we see recycled in Syria now, for instance, and will see again.
If there is to be a pantheon of such dissenters, Nobel Peace Laureate and Chinese writer and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo will have a prominent place in it. Liu is convinced that China is on the way to achieving a more democratic state, and that the Internet especially makes it possible for criticism and even political organization to thrive. He recognizes that the worldview informing his criticism of China is a Western one: it consolidates democratic ideals, separation of judicial, legislative, and executive powers, and freedoms of speech, assembly, association, and religion into a sophisticated vision of civil society.
Liu and fellow dissidents were inspired by Charter 77, the 35-year-old Czech manifesto calling upon the then Communist government of Czechoslovakia to respect human rights and bring to an end the normative fears and repression endemic to totalitarian societies. He became the main sponsor of the Chinese Charter 08 whose purpose was not to petition the authorities for change but rather to announce shared ideals to other Chinese people ready to hear them.
In the forefront of calls for democracy in China, Liu has engaged in various forms of dissent. In June 1989, at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests for democracy, Liu and three friends announced a three-day hunger strike to protest the treatment of protestors and to support the democracy movement. Many such actions have landed him in jail for years at a time, and his writings have often been suppressed.
Not all of them, though: two decades of Liu’s anti-totalitarian-regimes writings have been compiled into No Enemies, No Hatred, a fascinating, if somewhat flawed, compendium and an important read for anyone interested in the Quaker injunction to “speak truth to power.” Liu is virtually a paragon of that injunction, and of the words of the Gospel according to John: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” In No Enemies, he rebukes his fellow Chinese elites who “have yet to learn how to draw spiritual meaning from our encounters with suffering, how to live in human dignity, or how to feel concern for the suffering of actual, ordinary people.” He not only criticizes the politically privileged he sees as stifling human growth and expression, he also admonishes his fellow Chinese who know the truth, but are too easily intimidated to attempt unmasking and opposing it.
But Liu saves his most incisive analysis for the Chinese government, tracking its legacy of nationalism from ancient times through Mao and beyond, as well as its perennial campaign to muzzle dissent and clamp down popular unrest. That nationalism, as he describes it, is accompanied by a culture of violence, a sucking away of freedoms, and a kind of governmental occupation of the minds of its citizens through relentless propaganda and threats.
Liu’s essays are efforts to persuade his readers to recognize that the world is moving in the direction of freedom and democracy, and to encourage us to do what we can to help achieve change. His general principles may leave some feeling unsatisfied: individuals should live as freely as they can and with the greatest dignity they can sustain; nonviolence is valuable but unobtainable on a mass scale. Gene Sharp — the world’s leading nonviolence scholar and advocate, whose From Dictatorship to Democracy appears to have played a major role in inspiring organized nonviolent change in parts of the former Soviet Union, and more recently, in much of the Arab world — would disagree. But one limit of those recent nonviolent movements is that, as effective as they are in toppling hated leaders, they are not very successful in reconstructing civil institutions in such a way as to prevent successor tyrants from retaking power. Liu recognizes this problem, and his response to it is to advocate progressive, not radical, change:
In a nutshell, rather than to seek radical change of this regime, flawed though its legitimacy is, and then to expect that the abrupt change will lead to a remolding of society, people who are pushing for a free and democratic China should concentrate on gradual change in society and expect that this will eventually force a change in regime.
It can be argued, says Liu, that this is already underway. Increasingly, farmers demand ownership of the land they work. For all their efforts to control information flow from the Internet, much slips through the censors’ fingers. Liu writes that although civil society is growing, “the increasing pluralism of [China’s] economy and its values, like water dripping on stone, is gradually eroding our rigid political monism.”
No Enemies, No Hatred is a virtual ethnography of China’s political and economic corruption and what he calls an “atrophied sense of justice”:
[N]o one cares for an old man who falls down sick in the street; no one tries to rescue a peasant girl who slips and falls into a river; a hooligan beats and rapes a woman on a bus while none of the many strong men on the bus lifts a finger to help her …
He depicts an array of other effects, from a growing society-wide absorption in materialism and massive commercialization of sex, to the frightening narcissism that accompanies the practice of the one-child rule, to the more obviously criminal, like children being kidnapped and forced to work in brick kilns.
For Liu, the 2008 Beijing Olympics are a powerful metaphor of what he sees as cultural narcissism. He considers the passion and vast resources poured into the Olympics as an exercise in financial waste — no other Olympics has been so costly, and there is a movement afoot to make sure such excess is never repeated — and he condemns the bizarre practice (also common in the former Soviet Union) of taking young children who are promising athletes away from home to spend years preparing them for nothing but Olympic competition. Meanwhile, the drive for profit has replaced ideology as the social glue in China, Liu observes. He sees the regime and its leaders as too absorbed in making money, and the drive to build wealth as a deep sickness in his society.
It’s surprising that Liu does not recognize that materialism, an obsession with sex, money and entertainment, callousness to suffering, and the prevalence of injustice are not just Chinese problems but ones common, in varying degrees and varying ways, in advanced, market-based societies. The most startling passage of the book is this:
The U.S. role in the twentieth century [did not rely] on the occupation and plunder of colonial territory, but was built by supporting freedom, democracy, and national independence around the world, including independence from colonial rule.
Indeed, as much as I admire the spirit, courage, and accomplishments of Liu, he seems naive about the political economy of plunder, control, and brutality prevalent in all major industrial societies, not just his own. I don’t know if he would see globalization (which he does not mention) as colonialism and imperialism with a new hat, and I suspect he might settle for the American form of democracy, where we can meet and write, sing, demonstrate, and petition for change, but where we don’t often get very far effecting real change.
Of course, whatever the frustrations, limits, and fears our system engenders, phenomena like the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the women’s movement, and the gay rights movement are not nothing. Democracy and free speech made them possible, and they may have laid some of the essential groundwork for Occupy Wall Street, which is the first U.S. movement in 70 years to take up the still almost taboo topic of class differences, this time around in terms of inequality and the division between the 99 percent and the 1 percent.
Even if Liu does not locate his problems with China in larger global political and economic frameworks, he does do China, and us, the enormous favor of dissecting, piece-by-piece, the current Chinese regime, and envisioning its eventual replacement with a system that empowers the Chinese masses rather than just its elites. In bringing the plight of his people to the world, and being suitably honored for it with the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo positions himself as a teacher and an advocate in a freedom, democracy, and justice movement that does seem to be growing around the world.
Near the end of the book, Liu emphasizes that his quarrel is with institutions, not individuals playing their part in them. He recognizes that the police, the prosecutors, and the judges before whom he has appeared are for the most part doing their work professionally and well. In the essay “I Have No Enemies,” he adds that the Mao-era insistence on class struggle must be replaced by “economic development and more social harmony.” He leaves it open, and it’s rather mysterious what he means by this. I fear he is replacing a structural understanding of domination with the kind of rhetorical displacement he finds objectionable when the government does it. The plea for social harmony is too vague to have much meaning, however desirable it is as a goal.
No Enemies, No Hatred is strong in many ways and a bit lacking in others, which puts it in league with most other great books on such loaded topics as freedom and totalitarianism. Liu does belong in that pantheon, and I am delighted to find him firmly placed there.