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How China branded Nobel winner Liu Xiaobo a traitor

By Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 10, 2010; 12:37 AM

HONG KONG -- The magazine is banned in mainland China. So, too, is its Web site. Its editor is barred from visiting the land of his birth. Yet Chinese authorities have repeatedly cited reporting from the blacklisted publication.

"If they paid for using my work, I'd be much better off," joked Jin Zhong, the editor of Open Magazine, a low-budget Hong Kong monthly dedicated to criticism of the Chinese Communist Party.

China's frequent reference to a tiny media outfit it loathes is a curious by-product of its even fiercer loathing for Liu Xiaobo, the jailed dissident who was honored in absentia Friday as winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Though sent to prison for "inciting subversion of state power," Liu has been pilloried most harshly in China not for his alleged violations of the criminal code but for his affronts to Chinese nationalism. A slew of articles in China's tightly controlled official media lambast Liu as a traitor - and offer as evidence comments published in back issues of Jin's Hong Kong magazine.

Most frequently cited in this campaign of denunciation is an interview Liu gave to the journal in 1988. Visiting Hong Kong for the first time and dazzled by the city's prosperity, liberties and public order, Liu cracked that since the then-British colony had "become like this after 100 years of colonialism, China is so big it will of course need 300 years of colonialism. . . . I have my doubts as to whether 300 years would be enough."

At the time, his comments attracted little notice: they were typical of the provocative irreverence that characterized debate among Chinese intellectuals before the 1989 military assault on Tiananmen Square. "Nobody paid much attention," recalled Jin, who relegated the interview to the back of his magazine, then called Emancipation Monthly.

Today, Liu's words have been revived with gusto by the mainland media, stirring "patriotic" attacks on the jailed literary scholar on the Internet, where criticism of the Nobel Prize - unlike praise for it - has no trouble getting past censors.

Debate over whether China can find its own uniquely Chinese path to economic and political modernization or take the road pioneered by the West has raged since the collapse of the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, in 1911. Liu, a literary critic and essayist, stands firmly at the pro-Western end of the spectrum, a position that has put him sharply at odds with China's prevailing orthodoxy.

Over the last 30 years, the Communist Party has steadily cut its roots in Marxist dogma imported from the West and put Chinese nationalism at the center of its governing ideology.

"This is the best card they've got and they play it to the maximum," said Bao Pu, a Hong Kong-based publisher whose father, a former senior Communist Party official in Beijing, was jailed in 1989 for supporting pro-democracy student protesters. Bao described efforts to paint Liu as a traitor "as ridiculous" and has just published a collection of the dissident's writings to present a more complete picture of his views. But, Bao said, branding critics of the ruling party as unpatriotic "can be very effective."

Attacks from Chinese press

"What on earth has Liu Xiaobo ever contributed to human peace?" thundered a recent article in the ruling party's main mouthpiece, the People's Daily. "Many Chinese remember that the '300 years of colonialism' theory came from Liu. Contempt for Chinese culture and support for thorough Westernization have been his political stand."

Xinhua, the state-controlled Chinese news agency, took up the same cudgel in an angry editorial. Quoting Liu's remarks in his 1988 Hong Kong interview, the editorial asked "what qualification does someone who hails colonial history and culture have to talk big about 'democracy' and 'freedom'?" Liu's true goal, Xinhua said, is to "make China a servant of the West."

Global Times, another Beijing newspaper, delivered a similar attack. Its headline: "Liu Xiaobo: It is not enough to be colonized for 300 years."

The article triggered angry attacks on Liu by writers on Global Forum, an online venue affiliated with the newspaper. Liu "is not a human being and should be shot," commented one.

Not everyone is convinced of Liu's treachery. "I don't believe he is advocating colonialism but only . . . a thorough change in China's national character, system and culture," said He Guanghua, a professor at Beijing's Renmin University. And whatever Liu's real views, added He, "you can't convict him of a crime because he said these words."

But with Chinese media barred from publishing articles written by Liu, his widely publicized remark about colonialism is about all that many Chinese know of his thinking. His less-incendiary contributions to China's political debate have been purged by censors. Among these is "Charter 08," a manifesto in favor of democracy that the Nobel Prize Committee cited as evidence of Liu's "long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China."

This filtering helps explain why a dissident whom many foreigners view as a hero is often seen in China as tool of the West unworthy of the Nobel Prize. In the absence of opinion polls in China on sensitive political issues, it is impossible to gauge what ordinary Chinese really think of Liu.

China's propaganda apparatus

Barry Sautman, a political scientist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a critic of Liu's Nobel Prize, says that China's case against Liu cannot be dismissed as mere propaganda. Liu, he said, "wants to see China completely Westernized in a way that most Chinese would not want."

Sautman recently co-wrote an article for a Hong Kong newspaper that, citing Liu's 1988 interview with Jin and ignoring his voluminous writings, derided the Nobel Peace Prize as "morally bankrupt."

China's propaganda apparatus first put the spotlight on Liu's allegedly treasonous views in the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown. Liu was jailed for his role in the student protests - and targeted for vitriolic attack by the official media. Liu, said the People's Daily at the time, is a "traitor from head to toe." It, too, used Jin's Hong Kong magazine as a witness for the prosecution.

Writing for the same magazine in 2006, Liu declined to retract his "300 years of colonialism" quip and described it as an "extreme expression" of a core conviction: "China's modernization can only be achieved after a long period of Westernization."

Jin, the editor who conducted the 1988 interview, said he has no regrets about publishing comments that have provided so much fodder for Liu's critics in Beijing. "That's how a free press works," he said. But he wishes that Liu's enemies would quote what was said in full instead of cutting out a key line that makes clear the jailed dissident's true take on imperialism: "The age of colonialism has already passed."

higginsandrew@washpost.com Researcher Wang Juan in Beijing contributed to this report.

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