Behind The Rise of the Great Powers

A new book of translated essays by imprisoned writer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate has just been released. From a New York Times review of the book, titled, “No Enemies, No Hatred”:

In No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems (Belknap/Harvard University, $29.95), the well-­translated collection edited by Link, Tienchi Martin-Liao and — Liu’s wife — Liu demonstrates a considerable amount of anger while retaining his Gandhian nonviolent spirit. Taken together, his essays offer the best analysis I have read of what’s wrong in the People’s Republic of China.

Liu was the prime mover (although not the originator) of Charter 08, the petition signed by several thousand Chinese who demanded an accountable government and freedoms of speech, assembly, press and religion. The petition was the main evidence the Chinese government used against Liu when it sent him to prison in 2009, but his accusers might have reached further still, through his hundreds of articles and poems, and his 17 books. Even his 1988 Ph.D. dissertation, “Aesthetics and Human Freedom,” was “a plea for liberation of the human spirit,” as Link explains in his introduction.

Liu has always been most animated by democracy. This concern underlies his essays on Taiwan, Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union, the failures and lies of the Mao era, the “miracle” of the Deng Xiaoping reforms after Mao’s death in 1976 and, perhaps most emotively, Tibet. Even while Beijing condemned the Dalai Lama as “a wolf in monk’s clothing,” Liu breathtakingly suggested in 2008 that China could solve its ethnic unrest by inviting “the Dalai Lama back to China to serve as our nation’s president. . . . Such a move would make best use of the Dalai Lama’s stature in Tibet and around the world.”

An accomplished poet, Liu pays close attention to the power of language. Noting that the party charged him with “incitement of subversion of state power,” he said this was an excellent example “of treating words as crimes, which itself is an extension into the present day of China’s antique practice called ‘literary inquisition’ ” — a practice exemplified by the 18th-century emperor Qianlong’s purge of subversive books.

Guernica magazine has published one of the essays contained in the book, about a TV mini-series produced by CCTV which explores the rise and fall of great world powers. From the essay:

The group that planned and designed the project included many Chinese scholars who work within the political system but hold values that are liberal and open-minded. The group also interviewed more than a hundred scholars from China and abroad, so the series can be seen as a genuine cooperative effort between academics and CCTV television producers. It largely avoids the propaganda colorations of the past in favor of a relatively objective and neutral narrative voice, and presents the nine world powers in fairly rich historical contexts. It puts special emphasis on Great Britain and the United States, two democratic countries that have had major impacts on world history, and accords a certain affirmation to the value of modern institutions from the West such as free trade, market economies, and constitutional democracy.

A significant point in the genesis of the project is that, according to Ren Xuean, the chief editor of the series, the earliest impetus for its creation came from the very top of the Communist Party of China. On November 24, 2003, Party leader Hu Jintao presided over his Party Politburo’s “ninth collective study session,” the topic for which was “An Historical Investigation of the Development of the World’s Main Powers since the Fifteenth Century.” Two Chinese specialists lectured at that session on the history of the rise and decline of the nine powers in question. Ren Xuean remembers his reaction when he heard about it: “I was listening to the radio one morning on my way to work when I heard that the Politburo was going to study the history of world powers since the fifteenth century—nine great powers over five hundred years. There I was, in the noisy, jammed traffic of Beijing’s Third Ring Road, and a voice was coming at me out of the hoary past. It was exciting!”

Foreign media reported that after the Politburo’s study session was over, the top leaders issued instructions that Party and government officials at all levels study this period of Western history. CCTV’s goal in producing the huge project was to spread the theme from within the Party to the whole of society, to expand the Chinese people’s awareness of the issue, and to prepare them psychologically for China’s own rapid rise. Some of the foreign media speculated that the move was a sign that the top leaders were preparing to initiate political reform.

One would have expected to see a series as important as this aired on CCTV-1, the higher-rated of the CCTV channels. Maybe the authorities put it on CCTV-2 just to try to keep the controversy down, but in any case the series was a major production, appeared on the Party’s main television outlet, and in so doing broke the long-standing policy in the official media of keeping issues of major public concern off the air. It provided the Chinese people, with their pent-up longings to participate in public discussion of any kind, an excuse to speak up, and the torrent of heated comments that gushed forth as soon as the series aired should not, therefore, surprise us. Whether or not the series clearly explains the history of the rise and fall of world powers is of course a matter of individual opinion. What we know of the reactions of the viewing public—whether we speak of netizens or scholars, Chinese or foreigners—can only be summed up as “mixed.”

See also a review of the book from the Wall Street Journal.

January 5, 2012 4:19 PM
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