The Road to Liu Xiaobo’s Death, and the Path Beyond

The week since Nobel Peace laureate, advocate, and political prisoner Liu Xiaobo died under police guard in a Shenyang hospital has seen a torrent of tributes, commentaries, and reflections. Several observers have sought to make sense of the authorities’ treatment of Liu. From Andrew J. Nathan at Foreign Affairs, for example:

In China, nonviolent protest has been met with pervasive surveillance, harassment, random violence, and criminal prosecution. What this reveals, of course, is the regime’s sense of vulnerability. Ironically, survey after survey shows that the Chinese government enjoys high levels of trust and approval among the Chinese population. But the regime seems to understand that its popularity is due to economic growth, information control (few ordinary Chinese citizens have heard of ), and repression. The lesson of Tiananmen in 1989—and, after that, of the sudden collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1990–91—is that attitudes of support can be fleeting. If an authoritarian regime is perceived as weak or hesitant, citizens’ resentment of pollution, urban crowding, pressures at school, corruption, and the government’s pervasive lying can surge to the surface.

The key to the government’s treatment of Liu Xiaobo, therefore, has been risk aversion: Don’t let him get away with challenging the government’s control over what can be said in public (which he did by publishing his democracy manifesto, Charter 08, in 2008). Don’t let him read his final statement at his trial. Don’t let him attend the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo. Don’t release him from his 11-year prison sentence in spite of his cancer diagnosis. And don’t allow him to go abroad for treatment in the final days of his life. Everything must be managed by the rigid rules of political control in order to avoid sending a signal of weakness to the world—and especially to the Chinese people. [Source]

The Financial Times’ Jamil Anderlini also tried to explain the "farcical spectacle of cruelty," writing that the government’s motives are "important for people outside China to understand," though not "excuse or condone."

The current Chinese leadership have all read Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution and also closely studied the periods leading up to the 1917 Russian Revolution, the 1911 Chinese revolution and the fall of the Soviet Union.

Their conclusion is that authoritarian systems are at their most vulnerable when they attempt to liberalise. The Chinese must therefore avoid this at all costs.

Since gradual is off the agenda, individuals like Liu must be ruthlessly suppressed lest their spark sets off the prairie fire that could threaten the stability and wellbeing of Chinese society as a whole.

[…] Just as in any society, government officials and Communist party cadres are not uniformly heartless. I know several who think the treatment of Liu was disgraceful. But most also think it was a necessary evil. They truly believe that the political chaos or even civil war that could result from a fresh popular push for democracy would result in untold misery for hundreds of millions. Compared with that, they ask, what is the suffering of one stubborn individual? [Source]

Comparing Liu to the late Qing reformist martyr Tan Sitong at The New York Review of Books, Ian Johnson suggested that this logic actually has increasingly limited resonance among the Chinese public. He pointed to Xi Jinping’s invocation of "a more moral political and social order" based on Chinese tradition as a source of legitimacy to supplant raw economic development.

But how to reconcile this new vision with the treatment of people like Liu? In one of his essays, Liu made a prescient point about dissent. He said that people today have become less willing to tolerate the government locking people up for expressing their views.

I think this is right. People support the government for jailing or even executing terrorists or those accused of corruption. But for merely suggesting a course of political reform? People will shake their heads and say that it’s typical of the Communist Party to do this, but I’ve rarely met anyone other than an apologist who thinks it’s justified.

Maybe this is because the idea of remonstrating—of offering constructive criticism—has been an accepted part of China’s political system for thousands of years. China has a long history and many emperors have rejected advice and executed officials for daring to offer it. But they always went down in history as the bad guys. If Xi is trying to recreate some sort of traditional moral order then how can one justify such harsh treatment of people just for their ideas?

This is why Liu matters: his life and death stand for the fundamental conundrum of Chinese reformers over the past century—not how to boost GDP or recover lost territories, but how to create a more humane and just political system. [Source]

At Foreign Policy last week, James Palmer made the somewhat conflicting argument that many Chinese do justify dissidents’ treatment as a psychological defensive measure, blaming the victims’ own alleged poor judgment, naïvety, arrogance, or greed. Georgia State University’s Maria Repnikova questioned the prevalence of this view in a response at the Los Angeles Review of Books. In any case Beijing does not appear to feel it can rely on such unsympathetic attitudes enduring. A number of commentators have argued that the brittle insecurity highlighted by the circumstances of Liu’s death is ominous. Like many, Kerry Brown at East Asia Forum remarked on the fear that Liu appeared to instill in the authorities:

One of the most worrying aspects of the Liu case is how it points not to the Chinese government’s strength and confidence, but to its weakness.

As uncertainty spreads everywhere, the world is increasingly inclined to want and to believe in a China that is stable, predictable and confident. The fact that the Chinese state has been willing to expend such disproportionate political capital on this case looks like tangible evidence of a mighty party state rattled by the actions of one man.

Western leaders have to contend every hour of every day with fierce and sometimes savage criticism without recourse to jailing their opponents, and yet China made such an effort to deal with a single individual. The question this inevitably provokes is a simple one: why were they so frightened? [Source]

Elizabeth Lynch wrote at China Law and Policy:

China is the second largest economy in the world and most believe that it will soon supplant the United States as the Asia regional superpower. But yet this is how it responds to the death of one critique in its midst. A man whose only weapons were words and thoughts. If China still wonders why it can’t successfully project soft power internationally, this is it. […]

But even more troubling is that the Chinese regime’s suppression of Liu Xiaobo’s speech – both in life and in death – reflects a government that does not trust its own people.  Is Liu’s words going to cause revolution in the streets?  Probably not.  But yet they cannot be heard.  And in recent years, that distrust has only worsened.  Two years ago, the Chinese government conducted a nationwide crackdown on China’s civil rights lawyers, lawyers who use the legal system to protect people’s legal rights; nothing particularly revolutionary about that tactic.  And any civil society organization that becomes too successful, is shut down.  The Chinese people are left with no outlet to shape their own society and demand that their government live up to its ideals. Instead, the Chinese government distrusts anyone who it believes dissents.  But as Liu Xiaobo noted in the speech that was read at his Noble Prize ceremony, that enemy mentality will be a setback to progress:

Enemy mentality will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy. . . . Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth. [Source]

At The Guardian, Jason Y. Ng suggested that the unrelenting compulsion to control seen in Liu’s treatment and the recent removal from office of pro-democracy lawmakers in Hong Kong is already backfiring on Beijing:

The two news stories, less than 24 hours apart, share a chilling symmetry. They underscore the Chinese government’s growing intolerance for dissent on both the mainland and the territories it controls.

But Beijing’s tightening grip comes at a cost. In Hong Kong, Liu’s death has rekindled an anti-mainland sentiment that has been smouldering for years. To the seven million citizens who watched Liu’s slow death in equal parts horror and grief, any remaining pretence that modern China is a benevolent paternal state that has moved beyond a brutal response to political debate has been shattered once and for all. And all current and future attempts by Beijing to win over Hong Kong people, especially the younger generations, are doomed to fail. The indelible images of a skin-and-bone dissident on his deathbed or of that famous empty chair in the Oslo City Hall have been seared into their collective mind. China has lost Hong Kong forever.

[…] What separates a skilled autocrat from the rest of the mad dictators is his ability to judge the difference between going too far and just far enough. Control may be the Chinese Communist Party’s best substitute for legitimacy and a necessary condition for self-perpetuation, but how much control is too much continues to confound –and may one day trip up – Xi’s leadership. What happened to Liu Xiaobo and the four ousted lawmakers in Hong Kong suggests that Beijing is now dangerously close to overstepping that line. The price for misjudging the situation will be high, and while most of it will be borne by mainland and the citizens of Hong Kong, it may pack enough punch to upset the ever-delicate balance in the house of cards. [Source]

While Liu’s death may cause problems for China’s rulers, and lay existing ones bare, it has also cast a deep shadow over the Party’s domestic opponents and critics. Some observers remain relatively optimistic: HKU’s Fu Hualing argued at Chinoiserie before Liu’s death that "legal and political opportunities are [still] there" for China’s rights lawyers, even if the prospects fall well short of "transformative political change." While warning of "a comprehensive legislative agenda designed to confirm China as a de facto garrison state," NYU’s Jerome Cohen has noted quiet but steady institutional legal changes that "gradually improve procedures in ordinary criminal cases and lay the groundwork for more comprehensive reforms to occur when the political climate becomes less repressive." At Dissent Magazine this week, Maria Repnikova argued that "treating Liu’s death as symbolic of the end of all meaningful dissent in the country is misleading," citing the less visible "negotiation strategies" employed by frustrated journalists, academics, and even officials. Liu himself hailed these "low-key, practical" efforts in a 2008 essay highlighted this week by David Wertime at ChinaFile, describing them as "the mainstream of the resistance trend" and "no doubt […] a major part of the overall quest." Jamil Anderlini ended his Financial Times piece with Liu’s words from the statement he was barred from delivering at his trial: “There is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme.”

But for many, the outlook is bleak, as Joanna Chiu, Aaron Tam, and Elaine Yu report at AFP:

"When the Chinese authorities can so easily control life and death, people are more afraid to fight," said activist Su Yutong, who fled to Germany after being repeatedly detained and questioned over her work at an NGO.

"They see that even a Nobel Peace Prize winner can die in jail."

[…] Veteran China specialist Willy Lam said most of Liu’s friends were already under 24-hour surveillance and that the dissident community in general was "highly demoralised".

"They realise they are going through a long winter with no light at the end of the tunnel," said Lam, a politics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. [Source]

Similarly, from Javier C. Hernández at The New York Times:

“It’s a turning point,” said Yan Wenxin, a human rights lawyer in Beijing. “The feeling of powerlessness among activists has peaked.”

Under President Xi Jinping, the government has imprisoned dozens of lawyers, journalists and advocates and tightened controls over the internet. Now, the ruling Communist Party’s feverish attempts to erase Mr. Liu’s legacy have raised fears that Mr. Xi will intensify his campaign against activists pushing for ideas like freedom of speech and religion.

[…] “People are full of sorrow, anger and desperation,” said Zhao Hui, 48, a dissident writer who goes by the pen name Mo Zhixu. “We hope the democratic activists who still remain can keep the flame alive. But bringing about change to the bigger picture might be too much to ask.”

[…] “Some have turned to believe in violent revolution,” said Hu Jia, a prominent dissident who served more than three years in prison for his activism and still faces routine surveillance. “It makes people feel the door to a peaceful transition has closed.” [Source]

1989 student leader Wang Dan also noted this scenario in an essay posted at China Change:

Liu Xiaobo’s death also lays bare a reality we sometimes are reluctant to acknowledge: even the most moderate position, so long as it is premised on constitutional democracy, cannot be accepted by the Chinese Communist Party. No matter how moderate the view, no matter how much goodwill its proponents convey, to the CCP he is an “enemy of the state” and must be eliminated as soon as possible. Within and without the system, from former General Secretary Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳) to the dissident Liu Xiaobo, it has always been thus.

What does this tell us? It tells us that all those who abide in the hope that the CCP will initiate political reform, all those who believe that the CCP will move toward democracy once a certain stage of economic development has been reached, all those who wait on the chance that Xi Jinping will turn out to be an enlightened autocrat—are all wrong, naive, even ignorant. Liu Xiaobo’s death has proven this once again.

This point has profound implications as to whether China’s future transition will bode well for its neighbors and for the world. If China’s ruling party is willing to permit moderate opposition, the transition may be smooth and peaceful; but if the CCP cannot even admit moderate opposition like Liu Xiaobo’s, then the only option is to break away from the moderates, and for hatred to accumulate in society.

If the path to reform is cut off, China will be left with opposition between state and society, and the only way out will be bloody revolution. We certainly don’t want this, but once it happens, China will inevitably plunge into chaos, and that internal chaos will impact neighboring countries and the whole world. This is the profound fear that Liu Xiaobo’s death has given us. [Source]

While it might appear self-defeating for the government to drive political opponents to extremes, such a development could severely undermine dissidents’ potential popular appeal, and could be used to justify still harsher treatment. Beijing may already have adopted this strategy in a different context, as scholar Wang Lixiong argued in a 2014 interview on the prosecution of Uyghur professor Ilham Tohti:

We all thought he wouldn’t be in trouble. But the only conclusion is dark: it’s that they don’t want moderate Uighurs. Because if you have moderate Uighurs, then why aren’t you talking to them? So they wanted to get rid of him and then you can say to the West that there are no moderates and we’re fighting terrorists. [Source]

One particularly bleak assessment came from Yaxue Cao, also at China Change, on Monday:

With Liu Xiaobo gone, the mood among activists is one of helplessness. I’m surprised how little argument over the statement “I have no enemies” there has been these days, and indeed, how it ceased to be relevant, while Liu Xiaobo lay dying, for it is unbearable, and preposterous, to bring back to mind its central proposal: “to counter the regime’s hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love.” This statement used to be a lightening rod that sparked heated discussion. If Charter 08 represents a vision of China peacefully transitioning to a democracy, few today think it a viable option.

[…] What is the path forward? What’s going to happen next in the struggle for democracy? The path forward is that there is no path forward. The Party has been working systematically to block that path: The elimination of key activists has been successful, and they are either in prison or have been rendered ineffective. To keep tabs on a few hundred or thousand activists is nothing for the Party. If you run down the list of the first batch of Charter 08 signatories — all 303 of them — and see where they are and what they have been doing now, you get a sense how this core group of Chinese citizens advocating change has been faring.

[…] Liu Xiaobo may not have enemies, but the despots in China know very well who their enemies are. [Source]

At The New Yorker, meanwhile, Jiayang Fan compared Liu with the Zhou-era Chu patriot Qu Yuan, and asked how Liu himself would choose to be remembered as Chinese authorities sought to stifle commemoration with heavy censorship and a sea burial.

Perhaps that effort at erasure would have suited Liu, who understood the hollowness of both deification and vilification, and who knew instinctively that the truth lay within one’s conscience, not in the gestures of others. “What I’m saying is that there are too few people with their own minds, their own ideas,” he wrote, in 1986. A literary critic who relished parsing the complex, the nuanced, and the counterintuitive, he would have rejected the idea of being reduced to a symbol. As he had said, the famous live and die in the uncertainty of another’s framing. Moreover, he would not indulge in self-pity. “If you want to enter hell, don’t complain of the dark; you can’t blame the world for being unfair if you start on the path of the rebel,” he wrote. That’s why Liu will be remembered most not for the prizes he won or the punishments he endured but for the conviction of his beliefs and for the control that he ultimately wielded over his fate, despite the coercion of the state. This is something Liu shares with his countryman Qu, who once wrote:

I would not change, though they my body rend;
How could my heart be wrested from its end? [Source]