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He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny

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Patrick Zachmann/Magnum Photos
A bust of Mao in a school courtyard, Beijing, May 1989

Another essay deals with the “Land Problem.” In the Mao era, farmers lost their land and were reduced to virtual serfdom in the “communes.” They were bound to work on land that was no longer theirs. During the catastrophic madness of the Great Leap Forward the poverty of the farmers reached the point where they did not have food to eat or clothes to wear. In some places people were driven to cannibalism. More than forty million people starved to death during the great Mao-made famine of 1958–1962. Not long after Mao died in 1976, a “half-baked liberation” of the serfs took place: farmers were given the right not to own land but to use it, unless farmland needed to be “developed” and it then reverted to state property.

Officials wielding the power of the state and invoking “government-ownership of land” have colluded with businessmen all across our country…. The biggest beneficiaries of the resultant land deals, at all levels, have been the Communist regime and the power elite…. Farmers are the weakest among the weak. Without a free press and an independent judiciary, they have no public voice, no right to organize farmers’ associations, and no means of legal redress…. And that is why, when all recourse within the system…is stifled, people are naturally drawn to collective action outside the system….
Most of the major clashes that have broken out in China in recent years have pitted commoners against officials. Most have occurred at the grassroots in the countryside, and most have been about land. Local officials, protecting the vested interests of the power elite, have been willing to use a range of savage means, drawing on government violence as well as on the violence of the criminal underworld, to repress the uprisings.

Apart from Liu’s essays dealing with injustices and various forms of criminal abuses of power, other articles address more general questions: for instance, the meaning and implications of the rise of China as a great power, still a matter of great uncertainty. The very rapid growth of a market economy and people’s increased awareness of private property rights have generated enormous popular demand for more freedom, and this ultimately might have an effect on China’s international position. On the other hand, the Communist government’s

jealous defense of its dictatorial system and of the special privileges of the power elite has become the biggest obstacle to movement in the direction of freedom…. As long as China remains a dictatorial one-party state, it will never “rise” to become a mature civilized country….
The Chinese Communists…are concentrating on economics, seeking to make themselves part of globalization, and are courting friends internationally precisely by discarding their erstwhile ideology.
At home, they defend their dictatorial system any way they can, [whereas abroad] they have become a blood-transfusion machine for a host of other dictatorships…. When the “rise” of a large dictatorial state that commands rapidly increasing economic strength meets with no effective deterrence from outside, but only an attitude of appeasement from the international mainstream, and if the Communists succeed in once again leading China down a disastrously mistaken historical road, the results will not only be another catastrophe for the Chinese people, but likely also a disaster for the spread of liberal democracy in the world. If the international community hopes to avoid these costs, free countries must do what they can to help the world’s largest dictatorship transform itself as quickly as possible into a free and democratic country.

Yet what hope is there for such a transformation to take place? The regime itself is rigid. After more than twenty years of “reform,” the only feature of Maoist ideology that is being unconditionally retained by the Communist Party is the principle of its absolute monopoly over political power. There is no prospect that any organization will be able to muster the political force sufficient to bring regime change anytime soon. Liu writes: “There is…no sign, within the ruling elite of an enlightened figure like Mikhail Gorbachev or Chiang Ching-kuo, who…helped turn the USSR and Taiwan toward democracy.” Civil society is unable to produce in the near term a political organization that might replace the Communist regime.

In an essay titled “To Change a Regime by Changing a Society” (also cited as evidence in his criminal trial), Liu spells out his hopes: political tyranny would remain, but the people would no longer be ignorant or atomized; there would be a new awareness of solidarity in the face of injustice, and a common indignation provoked by the blatant corruption and the various abuses of power committed by local authorities. There would be new advances in civic courage, greater awareness of people’s rights. Also greater economic independence fosters more freedom on the part of citizens to move, to acquire, and to share information.

The Internet in particular enables exchanges and diffusion of ideas in ways that largely escape government censorship; government control of thought and speech grows less and less effective.8 To become a free society, the only road for China can be that of a gradual improvement from the bottom up. This gradual transformation of society will eventually force a transformation of the regime.

However, in direct contradiction to such hopes, Liu also bleakly describes the spiritual desert of the urban culture in “post-totalitarian China.” The authorities, he writes, are enforcing a rigorous amnesia of the recent past. The Tiananmen massacre has been entirely erased from the minds of a new generation—while crude nationalism is being whipped up from time to time to distract attention from more disturbing issues. Literature, magazines, films, and videos all overflow with sex and violence reflecting “the moral squalor of our society.”

China has entered an Age of Cynicism in which people no longer believe in anything…. Even high officials and other Communist Party members no longer believe Party verbiage. Fidelity to cherished beliefs has been replaced by loyalty to anything that brings material benefit. Unrelenting inculcation of Chinese Communist Party ideology has…produced generations of people whose memories are blank….
The post-Tiananmen urban generation, raised with prospects of moderately good living conditions [have now as their main goals] to become an official, get rich, or go abroad…. They have no patience at all for people who talk about suffering in history…. A huge Great Leap famine? A devastating Cultural Revolution? A Tiananmen massacre? All of this criticizing of the government and exposing of the society’s “dark side” is, in their view, completely unnecessary. They prefer to use their own indulgent lifestyles plus the stories that officialdom feeds them as proof that China has made tremendous progress.

I know of Western liberals who, confronted with the extreme puritanism of the Maoist era, naively assumed that, after long repression, sexual liberation was bound to explode sooner or later and would act like dynamite and open the way toward a freer society. Now an “erotic carnival” (Liu’s words) of sex, violence, and greed is indeed sweeping through the entire country, but—as Liu describes it—this wave merely reflects the moral collapse of a society that has been emptied of all values during the long years of its totalitarian brutalization: “The craze for political revolution in decades past has now turned into a craze for money and sex.”

Some on the left attribute the present spiritual and moral emptiness of Chinese society to the spread of the market and to globalization, which are also blamed for China’s enormous corruption. On the contrary, Liu shows that the deep roots of today’s cynicism, hedonism, and moral bankruptcy must be traced back to the Mao era. It was then, at a time that leftist nostalgia now paints as one of moral purity, that the nation’s spirit suffered its worst devastation; the regime was

antihumane and antimoral…. The cruel “struggle” that Mao’s tyranny infused throughout society caused people to scramble to sell their souls: hate your spouse, denounce your father, betray your friend, pile on a helpless victim, say anything to remain “correct.” The blunt, unreasoning bludgeons of Mao’s political campaigns, which arrived in an unending parade, eventually demolished even the most commonplace of ethical notions in Chinese life.

This pattern has abated in the post-Mao years, but it has far from disappeared. After the Tiananmen massacre, the campaign of compulsory amnesia once again forced people to betray their consciences in public shows of loyalty. “If China has turned into a nation of people who lie to their own consciences, how can we possibly build healthy public values?” And Liu concludes:

The inhumanity of the Mao era, which left China in moral shambles, is the most important cause of the widespread and oft-noted “values vacuum” that we observe today. In this situation sexual indulgence becomes a handy partner for a dictatorship that is trying to stay on top of a society of rising prosperity…. The idea of sexual freedom did not support political democracy so much as it harked back to traditions of sexual abandon in China’s imperial times…. This has been just fine with today’s dictators. It fits with the moral rot and political gangsterism that years of hypocrisy have generated, and it diverts the thirst for freedom into a politically innocuous direction.

In a last short piece written in November 2008, Liu looked “Behind the ‘China Miracle.’” Following the Tiananmen massacre, Deng Xiaoping attempted to restore his authority and to reassert his regime’s legitimacy after both had melted away because of the massacre. He set out to build his power through economic growth. As the economy began to flourish, many officials saw an opportunity to make sudden and enormous profits; their unscrupulous pursuit of private gain became the engine of the ensuing economic boom. The most highly profitable of the state monopolies have fallen into the hands of small groups of powerful officials. The Communist Party has only one principle left: any action can be justified if it upholds the dictatorship or results in greater spoils. Liu concludes:

In sum, China’s economic transformation, which from the outside can appear so vast and deep, in fact is frail and superficial…. The combination of spiritual and material factors that spurred political reform in the 1980s—free-thinking intellectuals, passionate young people, private enterprise that attended to ethics, dissidents in society, and a liberal faction within the Communist Party—have all but vanished. In their place we have a single-barreled economic program that is driven only by lust for profit.

One month after writing this, on December 8, 2008, Liu was arrested and eventually charged with “inciting subversion of state power”—whereas his only activity was, and has always been, simply to express his opinions. After a parody of a trial—which the public was not allowed to attend—he was sentenced to eleven years in jail on December 25, 2009.9 When, one year later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Chinese authorities acted hysterically: his wife, his friends, and his acquaintances were all subjected to various forms of arbitrary detention to ensure that none of them would be able to go to Oslo to collect the prize on his behalf. Today his wife, Liu Xia, is in her second year of house arrest without charges. These dramatic measures had one clear historical precedent: in 1935, the Nazi authorities gave the same treatment to the jailed political dissenter Carl von Ossietsky.10

At the Oslo ceremony, an empty chair was substituted for the absent laureate. Within hours, the words “empty chair” were banned from the Internet in China—wherever they occurred, the entire machinery of censorship was automatically set in motion.

Foreign experts in various intelligence organizations are trying to assess the growing strength of China, politically, economically, and militarily. The Chinese leaders are most likely to have a clear view of their own power. If so, why are they so scared of a frail and powerless poet and essayist, locked away in jail, cut off from all human contacts? Why did the mere sight of his empty chair at the other end of the Eurasian continent plunge them into such a panic?11

  1. 8

    There are more than 450 million Internet users in China. This entails political possibilities that terrify the authorities. Liu says, “Now, with my computer, I am connected with the entire world in a way that used to be inconceivable. The computer makes information gathering, consultation with others, composition of essays, and submission of manuscripts all much easier…. The Internet has brought new strength to public opinion…. [It] has made possible a kind of ‘freedom of assembly’ in cyberspace.” 

  2. 9

    On December 23, 2011, the writer Chen Wei, who had been arrested in February after posting essays online calling for freedom of speech and other political reforms, was convicted of the same crime of “inciting of subversion of state power” and sentenced, following a two-hour trial, to nine years in prison. 

  3. 10

    Other Nobel laureates were also prevented from going to Oslo: Andrei Sakharov, Lech Wałesa, and Aung San Suu Kyi were able at least to delegate personal representatives to attend the ceremony on their behalf. Boris Pasternak had to renounce the prize in 1958, but stayed out of prison. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was not imprisoned after he was awarded the prize in 1970, and he accepted it after he left the Soviet Union in 1974. 

  4. 11

    The reader will find that I pose a question of my own about a different country in the Letters section of this issue. 

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