The world looks to Nobel Peace laureates for depth of vision in human affairs, and their moral stature seems all the greater when they are persecuted by government. We have honored the views of such people as Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa and Aung Sang Suu Kyi.
Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Peace Prize, is in a prison in Liaoning, China, for “incitement of subversion of state power.” No one outside the prison has heard from him since Oct. 10, 2010, when his wife was allowed to visit and to pass along his wishes for the Nobel ceremony in Oslo in December.
The absence of Liu’s voice today, on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, is especially poignant. At his trial in December 2009, Liu opened his “final statement” by observing that “June 1989 was the major turning point in my life.”
What might Liu, who has written hundreds of political essays on a range of topics, say today if we could hear him? The person who might best know is his wife, Liu Xia. But we cannot hear her voice either; she has been under house arrest in Beijing since Oct. 18. Her mother is allowed to bring her food but cannot pass messages.
I put the question to Su Xiaokang, a close friend of Liu Xiaobo who lives in Delaware. Su founded Democratic China, a magazine launched by exiled Chinese writers after the 1989 massacre. Later, the magazine converted to a Web-based format, and in 2006 Su handed the electronic reins to Liu Xiaobo, who edited until police took him from his Beijing apartment late on Dec. 8, 2008.
Su reminded me how Liu has always been haunted by the “ghosts” of Tiananmen, the young people who used their bodies to block tanks and lost their lives. Today, those youths might ask from their graves, “For what?” The primary student demand in 1989 was to “oppose graft and corruption.” But those were days when corruption still seemed curable. Two decades later, it pervades Chinese society. It has produced what Liu Xiaobo often refers to in his essays as the “power elite”: a coalition bound by interests, not sentiment or ideology, that dominates resources, controls the media, runs the police, hires thugs, manipulates courts, buys off intellectual and entrepreneurial talent, invests its money overseas, and spends immense amounts (even more, this year, than on the military) for “stability maintenance” operations whose mission is to monitor potential “troublemakers” and to nip in the bud any sign of an organization that might compete with it.
Ordinary Chinese, thanks in part to the Internet, can see these patterns ever more clearly. As the gap between the haves and have-nots in China continues to widen, they are indignant, and they resist where and when they can. “Rights defense” consciousness has grown greatly in the past 10 years and had been a favorite topic of Liu’s. In his 2006 essay “To Change a Regime by Changing a Society” (which government prosecutors cited at trial as among the evidence of Liu’s “subversion”), Liu argued that “China’s road to a free society is going to depend on gradual improvements from the bottom up,” specifically on “the growing self-awareness among the people, on popular rights-defense movements, and on the autonomous, protracted, and ever-expanding pressures that this awareness and these movements place upon the regime.”
What the ghosts of Tiananmen lack today, in Su Xiaokang’s view, is “an executor of their will.” There is plenty to say, and many people to say it, but anyone who steps forward is repressed. Dissatisfaction has become more vocal in recent months in western China, and it’s striking because the complaints draw on language from the bloody Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s: “Chairman Mao is Glorious” and so on. The point is to protest today’s corruption and inequality, but because Maoist language is used authorities find it harder to repress in the usual way. Bo Xilai, the “princeling” son of Mao’s associate Bo Yibo, has been using this popular “leftist” outcry for political advantage in inner-party power struggles. Su and other friends of Liu Xiaobo lament the way in which Chinese people are reduced to using such “primitive, fundamentalist” language to express their grievances.
“From one point of view this is sad,” Su writes in a recent essay, “but from another it is hopeful. If factional combat at the top, foul as it is, must itself draw upon the moral legacy of Tiananmen, then China perhaps is not so hopeless after all.” Su has faith that the moral fundaments of the Tiananmen drama are more enduring than any regime.
What would Liu Xiaobo say? No one has been more articulate than Liu in exposing the cruelties of Mao or in upholding the values of Tiananmen in 1989. But so long as the Chinese government continues to imprison him, and prevents even his wife from seeing him, we cannot know.
Perry Link, a professor at the University of California at Riverside, is co-editor of “The Tiananmen Papers” and author of “Liu Xiaobo’s Empty Chair: Chronicling the Reform Movement Beijing Fears Most.”