He who was China’s most known figure raising voice for democracy and political reforms in a country fettered in autocratic chains of one-party dictatorial regime since 1950.
He was China’s leading dissident voice and human rights activist.
He had been a cynosure for the Chinese power elite ever since 1989 when he took part in protests on the Tiananmen Square as a young academician. China had arrested him four times – the last in 2008. He was detained in December 2008 and sentenced to 11 years in prison in December 2009 for inciting subversion of state power.
The world tried to sent China a message by selecting him for 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. China, a hell for human rights and political reform activists, responded to the decision saying the decision was totally wrong and unacceptable and started threatening countries to boycott the Award Ceremony on December 10, 2010. The Nobel Award ceremony was held with an empty chair representing him.
The power elite of the Chinese Communist Party moved swiftly to crush the every possible mention of Liu Xiaobo in China. They put Liu’s wife Liu Xia under house arrest the very day the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced its decision, i.e., October 8, 2010. She has been languishing in such forced conditions since then amid repeated calls by the international community to release her, a call that has got a renewed urge after demise of Liu.
China systematically killed Liu by incarcerating him in tough prison conditions and denying him the medical care that he required, something that deteriorated his health to life threatening condition ultimately. Domestic protests and international outrage mean nothing for China, death of Liu from terminal liver cancer once again proves. The Norwegian Nobel Committee has termed the death as premature and saying that China bears a heavy responsibility for it.
I had written in article in 2010 on what a Peace Nobel to Chinese human rights and pro-democracy activist meant – for Chinese society, for China’s power elite and for China’s pro-democracy activists.
I am sharing these articles here, with a more authoritative China under a more authoritative dictator, Ji Xinping, who has declared himself a ‘core leader’ like Mao Zedong and is working to make his power absolute in China – antithesis to the core body of thought that was behind the decision to award Peace Nobel to Liu Xiaobo.
These seven years have been a letdown for human rights and political reforms in China. But the big catch is China’s economic stagnation. It’s economy is slowing down and that is forcing the Chinese government to find new markets for its companies and new markets for its huge manufacturing base back home, in order to meet the expectations of its 1.37 billion strong population.
That, in turn, is forcing China to integrate more into global economy. All its attempts to forge global trade and climate alliances and trying to push its hegemony are half-baked attempts to that. That is bound to have a cost for the Chinese power elite. Increasingly, it will become difficult for a more globally involved China to do stuff like Tiananmen Massacre or incarcerating Liu Xiaobo or Ai Weiwei because China will not be in a position to face global isolation as that may push its dissident domestic factors beyond control.
Yes, it is not going to happen in near future. But evolution is a long-term process. Silence socially doesn’t mean people are not reacting. Spiral of silence may build up for years, depending on the dynamics of a country, before it leads to explosion of people’s anger.
A mighty state machinery goes into thinking mode based on some media inputs and its intelligence briefing. It anticipates some mobilization and prepares a control plan. A house is cordoned off. A lady is put under virtual house arrest. A counter speech is prepared in case the intelligence input gains ground.
Welcome to China, country of 2010 Nobel peace Laureate, Liu Xiaobo. Liu is China’s first Nobel laureate who remained there to face the state’s wrath.
It was a day when China joined the league of Burma, Iran, cold-war era USSR or Hitler era Germany in denouncing the person honouring the most serious recognition for efforts to bring the positive change – the Peace Nobel.
It was a day when the Nobel Peace Committee didn’t throw any ‘hard to swallow surprises’ like last year decision to award Peace Nobel to Barack Obama.
It was a day when ‘aspiration’ prevailed over ‘achievement’. Less than expected performance of Obama during last one year in office is any indication?
It was a day when Gandhian values of non-violence and ‘human-first’ prevailed again.
On 8th October 2010, when the Nobel Peace Committee announced the prize for Xiaobo, a human rights activist and a cynosure for the Chinese since 1989 when he took part in protests on the Tiananmen Square as a young academician, it was on the expected line.
Dr Sima Samar, the Afghan human rights activist, Liu Xiaobo, Democratic Voice of Burma and Special Court for Sierra Leone were the most talked about contenders for this year Peace Nobel. And all these names suggested one thing, that the Nobel Peace Committee had taken note of its last year’s ‘hard to explain’ decision and was wary of inviting any controversy this year.
All these most talked about contenders this year have an inspiring tale of commitment and contribution and they give wings to aspire for more. Dr Sima Samar is head of Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. She has had a long history of working on human rights issues and is considered a strong female voice in a country like Afghanistan that has virtually no female rights. It becomes important in the wake of recent reports that Taliban are in talks with the Karzai government to end the civil war there. Democratic Voice of Burma is not-for-profit organization based in Norway that equips journalists to work clandestinely and beam programmes into the iron-curtained Burma, both on radio as well as TV waves. Special Court for Sierra Leone was established court in 2002 after the Sierra Leone government requested the United Nations in 2000 to establish an independent court to try the faces responsible for the civil war in Sierra Leone that broke in 1996.
An argument doing rounds was Liu Xiaobo had lesser chances as 2008 would be the ideal year when the prize should have been announced for him, the year when China held the biggest soft power projection spectacle, the Beijing Olympics, the year when Liu Xiaobo co-authored the famed ‘Charter 08’, an ‘allegedly incriminating’ document as the China mouth organs put it. Ideally that would have given Liu more space to be heard in a country where he does not have the following he deserves except a courageous section of the intelligentsia.
But, still a Peace Nobel to Liu means many significant things for the parties involved – Liu himself, Chinese like Liu, Chinese other than the Chinese elite, China, the Norwegian Nobel Committee, and the humanity.
For Liu Xiaobo: Liu is like a committed Gandhian soldier who employs non-violent means to pursue his larger than life efforts for humanity, to contribute to the process of change. Values like freedom of speech, human rights, democracy are its present day parameters in a post-colonial world. He has endured state sponsored hardship during the 22 years of his activist life that includes the most severe punishment meted out to anyone after ‘challenging state’s writ and inciting subversion’ was included in the Chinese Criminal Code in 1996. He is no Gandhi or Mandela, but he seems to have a vision like them.
At personal level, it will be a big boost for his moral strength to continue with his struggle. The argument, that his limited following may altogether cease to exist as the Chinese government will now ruthlessly pursue the mission to kill any perception related to the name ‘Liu Xiaobo’, may boomerang. The intense cyber activity and widespread Chinese Diaspora will make it hard for any state attempt to stop the spread of word of mouth, and that too in country that has largest number of internet surfers crossing the 400 million mark. In the changed circumstances, the possibility that the Liu Xiaobo is bound to gain ground seems more opportune. After all, we did have differing versions of the Tiananmen massacre; we did have clearer versions of the Chinese crushing of Tibetan and Uighur movement; we did have this to witness the China government on the back-foot, many a times, in the Google row; after all, we did have version of Liu Xia who has been able to express the displeasure on Chinese panic and expression of shock; after all, we did have reports of Chinese arresting Liu Xia. It’s a changed time, even for the middle kingdom.
And why call Liu a dissident. He is more of a proponent of positive change. Perhaps it is not the Charter 08 but the ghost of Charter 77 that toppled Eastern European governments in the pro-democracy wave after it was framed in 1977. The panic shown by a defiant China shows this only.
For China, democracy has a different definition: Off late, there has been much media debate, locally as well as globally about Wen Jiabao’s comments on political restructuring and democracy. But all this talk is within the realm of maintaining ‘one-party’ supremacy and here China finds people like Xiaobo difficult to assimilate in its fold who demand the universal definition of democracy to be applied. One of the demands in the ‘Charter 08’ is establishment of the multi-party system in China, a blasphemy by the standards of the Chinese elite of the day.
Though having a very narrow spectrum, the economic liberalization has started making a dent in the Chinese fortress of one way entry and government fears voices like Liu may give fuel to the unrest that is already being reported. Let’s come to some economic indicators and what they foretell about China of tomorrow.
In 1978, when China opened up its economy, its rural and urban per-capita income was $19.6 and $50.3 that shot to $606.2 and $2018.4, respectively, in 2007. According to latest World Bank figures, the current Chinese per capita income is $3,590. Though impressive growth, the perception about its prowess and mighty status, militarily as well as economically, that the world’s most populous country has been very deliberately developing since 1978, has an inherent risk and it makes people like Xiaobo even more relevant and the decision to award him Peace Nobel a proper one.
China’s per capita income was 2.52% of that of US in 1980 that improved to the level of 4.05% of US per capita income in 2005. Current per capita income of US is around $40,000. So the gap is huge. Chinese rulers are feeding its middle class base with a dream of life of luxury in the days ahead when China will be the world’s largest economy. It is already the second largest when it overtook Japan the last quarter. China’s GDP for the last quarter totalled to $1.337 trillion (compared to Japan’s $1.288 trillion) that is 90 times bigger than what China had in 1978. The dream to chase and bridge this gap is presently the prevailing nationalist sentiment among the burgeoning Chinese middle class. Their income is growing and no doubt, China has tried to distribute the gains to its rural areas too, and where its corrupt system has failed it. Here we need to remember the treatment meted out to the poor while evicting them out of Shanghai and Beijing.
Even by the most liberal estimates, here China might fail in the coming future. Once people are fed-up of what they have achieved, they look for the next level. And the problem is, the swift pace of change in recent times ($2018.4 per capita income to $3,590 in just three year) has made the middle class sentiment change even swifter. The economy growth is bound to slow down and even stagnate in coming years. But, by then China will have a middle class thriving on technological sophistication, connected more to the world and to the Diaspora, and demanding for more and more. When such a huge and aspiring middle class doesn’t get its ends met, it starts questioning the state policies. And given their large population base, it seems like an unachievable task for countries like India and China to surpass the per-capita income of developed countries, if we talk in terms of the perceivable future.
The system that China has right now cannot handle it as it has fed its people with a very glossy future, to the very same people who have survived the Chinese Cultural Revolution and its factory and rationing system. Anyone who is aware of China’s factory system and the social habitation built around it very well knows about its darkness. Chinese middle class will do anything to run away from it. They cannot not be treated like they were before 1978. But in a crisis situation now, they won’t have any alternatives to look for to express their dissatisfaction, like in a democracy, and that is bound to fuel the unrest. Alternative was out of question way back in 1978. But, is China of the day in a situation to adopt crushing tactics like the Tiananmen? Certainly not. It needs to give its citizens options in case of unrest and it has to decide its formations and configuration.
A crisis situation is handled well by a country when it believes in its subjects, the citizens, or to say more aptly a democracy, that China is not. It can begin a process by assimilating voices like Liu in the mainstream. It should welcome its first Nobel Prize as a way forward to propagate a healthy national debate on political reforms. Economical and political reforms have to be complimentary otherwise China may fall due to its own weight. It cannot have the definition of democracy that it is trying to propagate in the name of political reforms. It needs to have a democracy like that propounded in the ‘Charter 08’.
Otto Hermann Kahn has very rightly said: The deadliest foe of democracy is not autocracy but liberty frenzied.
It is 52 days; 52 days since October 8, 2010. It took 52 days for the Chinese state machinery to crush the Tiananmen Moment of 1989 culminating in June 5 bloodbath from a humble beginning as civilian gathering on April 15, 1989.
So what all China has done in these 52 days this time? Certainly it’s not another Tiananmen of 1989 but it can be precursor of something like what came out of mourning after death of Hu Yaobang in 1989.
The 52 days since the Peace Nobel announcement to Liu Xiaobo has seen a frenetic activity by the Chinese government that tells that the Chinese elite mindset has not changed since the days of the 1989 Tiananmen Movement. The uprising then had acquired a loud and potent formation with its wide outreach and was meted out with an equally crushing and demeaning spread of totalitarian tentacles subsequently. The seed of a potential uprising this time is subtle and it is there, yes the seed may take longer to germinate here because the change now is happening amidst a conundrum of economic, social and political parameters that the Chinese policymakers are still trying to understand.
Not much insight is needed but a keen observation to the response of the Chinese state machinery and of its elite since October 8.
It has virtually arrested Liu Xia – no communication means available. It has cracked down on the members of Chinese intelligentsia who dared speak positively about Liu’s Nobel, arresting some, making some pariah by clipping their wings, defaming them by using its state sponsored propaganda machinery (what else one can expect when you have the whole media acting as your mouth organ – no doubt the huge investment that the Chinese media industry saw was never to get its return), cracking down on communication and social networking means of some, threatening the country’s masses with direct and indirect consequences of even thinking about the name Liu Xiaobo, extending it to other countries through its coercive and threatening diplomacy.
How else we can have a Nobel Committee alleging a country of year’s Nobel recipient of sabotaging the Prize Ceremony as six countries including Russia (no need to mention China) have shown their inability to join the function? December 10 has still 12 more days to go and expect more muscle juggling of China’s coercive diplomacy externally and an over-alert internal security system internally.
What all these tell? Something ominous!
Yes, ominous for the Chinese elite but symbolically opportune for the Chinese masses with its emerging classes and it is interestingly foretelling for the world community.
And what are these factors? The similar ones already discussed in previous two parts of this write-up, a burgeoning middle class, new classes within the class-less Chinese society, their growing connectivity and communication freedom and hence their growing demands of a life, always to be bettered in terms of what a ‘standard quality of life’ means universally.
What all it says of what all that China has done in these 52 days for other stakeholders – – Chinese like Liu, Chinese other than the Chinese elite, the Norwegian Nobel Committee and the humanity – of the decision to award the Peace Noble to Liu Xiaobo!
Amnesty has stated – “As we’re doing right now, there’ll be increased attention paid not only to Liu Xiaobo, but also many of the dozens of other activists who have spoken out, worked really tirelessly, been jailed for promoting freedom of expression, for promoting respect for human rights. The international community will hopefully pay greater attention to the fact that Liu Xiaobo is not alone, in fact, in the activities that he’s been conducting.”