When the Nobel committee awarded Liu Xiaobo, who died Thursday in China, the Peace Prize in 2010, Fang Lizhi, the Chinese astrophysicist dissident, wrote from exile in America that the award “challenged the West to re-examine a dangerous notion that has become prevalent since the 1989 massacre: that economic development will inevitably lead to democracy in China.”
The Nobel award also challenged something else, and that was the idea, popular among many Western academics, businessmen and strategists, that rebels such as Liu were outliers from mainstream Chinese culture. While Americans took Soviet and South African dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov and Nelson Mandela seriously, their Chinese counterparts never got the recognition they deserved. China had no tradition of liberal thought or democracy, went the argument. The Chinese were more communal; their culture did not treasure individual freedom. They didn’t share the values of the West. They possessed, instead, “Asian values.”
There was a great deal of cynicism in this argument, as Western businesses and political leaders used it to brush off questions about the massive investments they made in China’s economy and modernization. The Chinese don’t care about human rights, went the logic, so why should we?
Two things belie that argument. First, if the Chinese government believed that Western liberal thought had no purchase among its people, why would it spend so much time cracking down on those who advocate it? This mission has been going on since the 1950s: Liu was the latest in a long line of courageous men and women who have died at the hands of the Communist state.
Today, the drumbeat in China against “hostile Western forces” remains as strong as ever. Since party chief Xi Jinping took power in 2012, the party has intensified a crackdown on dissidents. As they were in the 1950s and 1960s, people are thrown in jail not for trying to organize against the party but for simply expressing their opinions. The most recent victim, Liu Xiaoming, was sentenced to 4 ½ years in early July for “inciting subversion of state power.” For what? Posting a personal account of the bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests. Among Xi’s other victims are five feminists who wanted to launch a campaign against groping on subways and buses.
The second factor that demolishes the argument that Chinese don’t care about freedom is China’s own history. Liu belonged to a rich tradition of Chinese liberal thought that argued that if China wanted to rediscover its greatness it had to value individual freedom and rights as it modernized. Many of these men and women were educated in the United States and for decades in the early 20th century they represented the conscience of their nation.
But like Liu, many of these liberal thinkers had a difficult relationship not only with their government but also with Westerners who belittled their influence. China’s first great liberal thinker was Hu Shih. He studied philosophy in the 1910s at Columbia University. When the American political scientist Frank Goodnow helped rewrite China’s first constitution in 1915, giving dictatorial powers to China’s then-president Yuan Shikai, Goodnow did so on the premise, he wrote, that the Chinese were too backward for democracy. Hu was distressed by Goodnow’s pessimistic view of his people. “The only way to have democracy is to have democracy,” he wrote. “Government is an art, and as such it needs practice. I would never have been able to speak English had I never spoken it.”
Lin Yutang was another legendary liberal who ran afoul of Western intellectuals. In the 1930s, Lin was the most successful Asian writer in the United States. His best-selling “The Importance of Living” stands as one of the first self-help books ever. But in the late 1940s, as Mao Zedong’s Communist movement captured the imagination of U.S. academics, Lin blasted China’s Communist leader, detailing Mao’s bloody purges and his rule by terror. American reporters, such as Edgar Snow, accused Lin of being on the payroll of Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China, which was fast losing the civil war to Mao’s forces. This prompted Lin to observe in 1945 that “Liberty for Americans is their life blood, but for Chinese, what does it matter anyhow? The consigning of 500 million to totalitarian rule does not even arouse a ripple of phlegm.” Lin was the first Chinese liberal to advocate the idea that hate and violence should not be wielded as the driving forces for political change. Liu embraced that idea as well. As he declared in one of his last essays, “I have no enemies and no hatred.”
Finally, for those devotees to the Asian values chestnut, there’s this. A Chinese man named P.C. Chang stands at the center of the writing of the United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights. An American-educated playwright, a philosopher and diplomat, Chang was the Republic of China’s representative to Eleanor Roosevelt’s team that authored the document in 1946. Scholars of the document have credited Chang with ensuring that it lived up to its name of being universal. He argued successfully not to include the idea that individual rights were bestowed on humans by God or nature. After all, he noted, many people around the world did not believe in God. And he convinced the committee that a declaration on human rights was not simply about the rights of the individual; it also concerned the individual’s obligations to society.
Liu was heir to this great tradition of Chinese liberal thought. And like his comrades, one day his contributions will get the respect and appreciation that they deserve — not only in China but also across the globe.