Roving thoughts and provocations

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What Beijing Fears Most

Villagers from Guangdong province protesting the construction of a garbage incinerator, Guangzhou, China, January 25, 2010 (William Foreman/AP Images)

On December 29, four days after being sentenced to eleven years in prison for “subversion of state power,” the Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo filed an appeal to a higher court. For many familiar with the Chinese regime, the decision seemed quixotic: it is extremely unlikely that a higher court will overturn the sentence, which aims at Liu’s support for Charter 08 and his writings on human rights, democracy, and rule of law in China. Yet Liu’s response to his sentence—and that of a number of Chinese intellectuals over the past few weeks—suggests that the Charter 08 movement continues to survive, despite extraordinary efforts by the Chinese government to repress it.

Friends and supporters of Liu were generally startled at the length of the sentence. Fellow writer Li Jie, for example, wrote that “I expected [the authorities] might want to play down the issue—give Liu a one-year sentence, declare that he’d already served it [because he had already been held without trial for a year], let him go home, and move on. I really did not imagine that they would be as feeble-minded as this.” Among Charter 08’s supporters, there is little doubt where the eleven-year sentence originated; such a decision could be made only by the government’s most senior leaders. But no one has a good answer for why eleven seemed the right number. (The maximum under the law was fifteen years.) One theory that has spread on the Chinese Internet is that eleven years is 4,018 days, and Charter 08 contains 4,024 Chinese characters. So: one day for each character you wrote, Mr. Liu, and we’ll waive the last six.

If the purpose of the harsh sentence was to intimidate others, it has not worked well. Hundreds of signers of Charter 08 have endorsed an additional statement declaring that if Liu Xiaobo is guilty then we are, too. Cui Weiping, a film scholar (and translator of Vaclav Havel into Chinese), spent the days following the announcement of Liu’s sentence conducting a telephone survey of more than 100 prominent Chinese intellectuals, including both signers and non-signers of Charter 08, on how they viewed the sentence. Finding almost unanimous disgust, she collected her findings under the heading “We Give Up on Nothing” and published them in a series of twitter feeds that circulated widely in China and abroad—even to my computer in California. Until now, the authorities have not been able to stop her.

Cui quotes Zhang Sizhi, a senior lawyer, who wonders how the once “great, glorious, and correct Communist Party” could now be so “manipulative, petty, and selfish.” Wang Lixiong, a leading writer and advocate of peace with the Tibetans, said the best way to support Liu Xiaobo is to continue to work for his cause, until “society is changed and everyone in it is free.” Liang Xiaoyan, a well-known editor, said the sentence shows that while some things in China have changed radically in the last thirty years, other things “haven’t budged, and there is not the slightest impulse [at the top] to budge them.” The eminent historian Yu Ying-shih, reached at his home in Princeton, New Jersey, noted that this was the third time in twenty years that China’s rulers have sent Liu Xiaobo to political prison, and “each time has been more glorious than the last.”

No one in Cui’s survey sided with the government, but some did equivocate, and, with their permission, Cui records their comments as well. Mo Yan, one of China’s leading novelists, said, “I’m not clear on the details, and would rather not comment. I have guests at home right now and am busy.”

On Liu’s own opinion of his sentence, we have the following written statement, relayed from prison by his lawyers, on December 29, the same day he decided to appeal:

The sentence violates the Chinese constitution and international human rights covenants. It cannot bear moral scrutiny and will not pass the test of history. I believe that my work has been just, and that someday China will be a free and democratic country. Our people then will bathe in the sunshine of freedom from fear. I am paying a price to move us in that direction, but without the slightest regret. I have long been aware that when an independent intellectual stands up to an autocratic state, step one toward freedom is often a step into prison. Now I am taking that step; and true freedom is that much nearer.

Liu Xiaobo

Some have questioned Liu’s determination to appeal. If the legal process in cases like his is only window-dressing, as everyone knows it is, isn’t he lending credibility to a public fraud by suggesting that it could be subject to a legitimate remedy through the Chinese judicial system? In response to this sort of criticism, Liu’s close friend Jiang Qisheng, a physicist and another drafter of Charter 08, has written an essay for China Human Rights Defenders arguing that “in my view, Liu probably asked for an appeal simply in order to leave the most complete of possible historical records. What happens when a citizen stands up to a tyrannical dictatorship? Here’s what happens—in every detail, start to finish.” By appealing, Jiang suggests, Liu does not support the public fraud but further exposes it.

Others who support Liu see the eleven-year sentence—as unjust and egregious as it is—as helping the cause of Charter 08, especially outside China. Far more than before, Liu and his situation now resemble that of Adam Michnik, Vaclav Havel, and Nelson Mandela. On January 19, Havel, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and eight others published a statement urging that Liu be considered for the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. When China’s rulers determined such a heavy sentence, despite international appeals for Liu’s release, and chose to announce it on Christmas Day, some foreign leaders may finally have come—as Liu’s supporters see it—to a more accurate view of the nature of the Chinese regime. The difference between Hillary Clinton in February 2009 (human rights, she said, must not “interfere” with larger issues in the Sino-American relationship) and the same Ms. Clinton this month (China’s Internet censors are a “threat…to our civil society”) may not be wholly attributable to the Liu Xiaobo trial—the recent comments followed Google’s announcement that the Chinese government has been interfering with its servers. But might it have helped?

Still, the nub of the Charter 08 battle remains at home, not abroad. There is much evidence that the ideas of the Charter—upholding the letter of China’s constitution and respecting human and civil rights—appeal to the Chinese people who get to see it, but the government has been quite successful in blocking the Charter’s spread. About 10,000 people have now signed, and were there not widespread fear about the consequences, no doubt hundreds of thousands of others who know about the Charter would sign as well. Even if the crypto-Chartists number as many as a million, however, that is less than 0.1 percent of China’s population. The apparent intensity with which China’s rulers despise Charter 08 cannot be attributed to a threat from that 0.1 percent. It must come from a deeper worry that the Charter 08 movement might someday tap into, and give shape to, the very broad and deep currents of discontent that have been coursing through Chinese society.

In recent times, unrest in China has occurred over issues such as corruption, official privilege, land confiscation, tainted food products, and air and water pollution; thanks to the Internet, such problems may now draw tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of protesters, and the resultant uproars have sometimes forced the hands of officialdom. Deng Yujiao, a waitress who stabbed a drunken official to death as he was trying to rape her in May 2009, would surely have faced execution in the days before the Internet. But after tens of millions of Web-users took her side and voiced their outrage online, a court found she had acted in self-defense and ordered her release. Until now, such groundswells of protest have not linked themselves to more sweeping demands for government reform. What Beijing fears most is a marriage between manifestos and the masses; if protesters at this level were someday armed with Charter 08, the men who rule China could face a challenge of truly nightmarish scale.

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