NO ENEMIES, NO HATRED
Selected Essays and Poems of Liu Xiaobo
ed. Perry Link, Tienchi Martin-Liao and Liu Xia
with foreword by Vaclav Havel
Belknap Harvard Press, 355pp.
Reviewed: 2 June 2012
In 2010 the Peace Prize Committee infuriated the Chinese government by selecting Liu Xiaobo, then and now in a Chinese prison, charged with “incitement to subvert state power”. His “crimes” were purely literary, but enough to enrage the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.
Liu has been a persistent and prolific political writer and blogger since the Tien An Men incident of 1989, and has been gaoled several times. This book selects key essays and commentaries published in magazines and online from around the time of the Tian An Men incident through to Liu’s final statement at his Beijing trial in December 2009.
Few laureates of the Nobel Peace Prize are actually pacifists. Alfred Nobel, Swedish inventor of explosives and owner of ninety armaments factories, bequeathed part of his fortune to fund an annual prize for “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
Each year a Norwegian committee under royal patronage sifts global nominations. Their choice is often controversial. Many laureates have had a warlike past: Menachim Begin, Yasser Arafat, and Henry Kissinger among others. Many have had nothing to do with armies or peace congresses, but perhaps contributed to “fraternity between nations” by setting a public example of moral confrontation against political power. Jose Ramos Horta, Aung San Suu Kyi, Lech Walesa and the Dalai Lama come to mind. Still others have been apolitical humanitarians like Mother Theresa, Medecins San Frontieres, and the Red Cross.
Facing imprisonment, Liu asserted that he has “No enemies, no hatred”, but he spares nobody with his trenchant social and moral criticism of contemporary China. The Communist Party is his main target, he is also sternly critical of less-radical Chinese intellectuals, dissidents, and those foreign fellow-travellers who make excuses for the Communist Party’s refusal to grant fundamental human rights. You can’t speak out like this without creating powerful enemies, and you won’t persist with it unless you bear substantial reserves of anger. The line between anger and hatred is hard to define.
While radical in his demands for change in contemporary China, Liu himself seems to identify with the ancient tradition of the Chinese scholar-hero who dares, at his own peril, to speak truth to power. The essay Yesterday’s Stray Dog becomes today’s Guard Dog is a virtuoso de-bunking of the current Party campaign to re-establish Confucius as the embodiment of virtuous commitment to “stable” government. Liu writes off Confucius as a failure at politics in his own time, only endorsed as a sage by later generations of dictators and emperors because of his emphasis on obedience to authority. Liu blames this for what he calls the “slave mentality” of modern Chinese toward their government.
Several of the essays list demands for the establishment of individual rights within China. The most comprehensive is the Charter 08 document, drafted with other liberal intellectuals in 2008, widely circulated, and attracting more than 12,000 signatories. Publication of the Charter at home and abroad embarrassed China’s leadership in the year of the Beijing Olympics, and was the last straw provoking Liu’s arrest and imprisonment for sedition.
The Charter’s nineteen demands cover the standard liberties one associates with a modern liberal democracy, but also a number of points that remind us what rights are currently denied to citizens of China. The separation of powers between constitution, government and judiciary, and the protection of private property including title to land, are things we have come to take for granted, perhaps naively.
Charter 08 also calls for China to devolve its centralized system into a federated republic, allowing for incorporation of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan on liberal terms, and hinting at possibilities of self-government of non-Han areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang within a “federation of democratic communities of China”. This would have sent China’s right-wing neo-nationalists hopping mad, as well as the traditional Communist Party centralists.
The rise of neo-nationalism is one of Liu’s pet targets. He despises the self-glorifying rhetoric that infects popular Chinese culture, the mythologizing of Chinese achievement, past and present, far beyond reality, and the “bellicose and thuggish” attitudes to China’s place in the world as it grows in economic strength. He angrily dismisses those Western commentators who over-praise and over-estimate China’s past, its progress and its future, accusing them of naivety, patronizing fantasy, or self-serving attempts to ingratiate themselves with masters of the current China growth gravy-train.
Liu Xiaobo’s critics call him pro-Western and thus anti-Chinese. He has certainly studied widely across the Western canon of political philosophers from Plato to Hayek, as well as the Chinese tradition in which he was a professor at Beijing Normal University. He can be scathing of Western materialism, bogus superiority, ignorance or intellectual faddishness and detachment. But he openly admires certain Western traits from which he believes China could benefit.
Most important of these is adherence to republican customs and institutions that limit the abuse of power by individuals or powerful elites. As a rueful Westerner, I found myself wondering whether he had observed closely enough to realize how virulently these institutions are always under attack from opportunists within, and require constant reinforcement.
At the individual level, Liu has studied and admired Gandhi, King, and leaders of the post-Soviet soft-ish revolutions in Eastern Europe – including Vaclav Havel who provided the model for Liu’s Charter 08 and a foreword to this collection. Though a religious skeptic, Liu has also studied Jesus of Nazareth (as a social reform catalyst) and evokes him several times as a model or icon. The theme of political martyrdom carries more urgent resonance in contemporary China than in the modern West, though our history is full of it from Socrates to Oruzgan.
Some readers may respond to Liu’s poems, mostly dedicated to and selected by his wife Liu Xia. On the whole, the English translations did not get through to me.
Over all, this book surprised with its bold and outspoken perspective of modern China, seen from inside by a passionate advocate for individual rights in the world’s largest ever mass state. The terms of reference offer reflections on our own society as well as on China’s.
Richard Thwaites witnessed China’s first modern movement for human rights in the Democracy Wall movement in Beijing in 1979, while Liu Xiaobo was a student.