Liu Xiaobo: The Founder of China’s Political Opposition Movements
Dr. Wu Qiang | China Change
This article was first published in ChinaChange website
These actions show that Liu Xiaobo is not only a hardworking dissident author, but also a leader and organizer of political opposition. His superb leadership ability and political acumen allowed him to establish, during the course of the first decade of the 21st century, in a strict authoritarian environment, a movement that inherited the spirit of the Tiananmen democracy movement, an organizational network, and a nationwide opposition platform. In each instance he changed the pessimistic attitude people had toward the political “circumstances,” and helped Chinese citizens stop waiting around and watching from the sidelines, instead inspiring them to actively work for change themselves. — Wu Qiang
The news of Liu Xiaobo’s terminal liver cancer emerged over the last few days on Chinese social media and in the international press and, remarkably, was met with official confirmation. Amidst the shock and grievance, an open letter by Chinese intellectuals, dissidents, and activists has been published demanding that Liu will be released to receive medical treatment. Many are now wondering: How will the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate spend the final days of his life? Will he be able to actually receive the prize from the Norwegian Nobel Committee? Will his life and death alter China’s destiny? In particular, in the crucial period before the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th National Party Congress this fall, the deterioration of Liu Xiaobo’s health, as well as his status as a political symbol, have become sensitive questions that could play a role in political developments and have potentially explosive implications.
It must, of course, be acknowledged that accurately evaluating Liu Xiaobo’s political contribution and assessing the impact of his death is exceedingly difficult. The influence of Liu Xiaobo on the minds of the majority of the Chinese citizenry isn’t as great as his supporters sometimes imagine. The older generation is likely to have a vague impression of him being maligned by the government after the June 4 massacre as a “black hand behind the scenes,” while younger people are apt to have no idea at all who he is — just as they have no memories of the Tiananmen movement itself.
Even in the world of Chinese political activists, opinions on Liu Xiaobo are polarized, and this has to a large degree also impacted his exposure among the public. The most controversial item is no doubt the last sentence of Liu’s statement, delivered to the court on November 23, 2009 (and later adopted as his Nobel acceptance speech in absentia): “ I Have No Enemies.” A significant number of committed democracy activists in China have for years strongly maintained that this pledge was no less than Liu’s capitulation. They facetiously call him “No Enemy Liu,” and dismiss his path of nonviolent resistance. This, however, is precisely why the Norwegian Nobel Committee thought so highly of him, and it’s likely also the reason that so many Chinese activists are proud of him and see him as China’s own Mandela, Ghandi, Aung San Suu Kyi, or Xanana Gusmão. Though it also led to another view, which was that the civil society in China has no need to call for Liu’s amnesty, as this would simply be an acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the sentence against him. This has been a view propagated precisely by the activists who purportedly support Liu.
The result of all this has been that, while Liu Xiaobo spent nearly a long decade in jail, not only was his wife Liu Xia put under house arrest and isolated by the authorities, but the so-called Liu Xiaobo supporters, who supposedly had “no enemies,” created a conceptual rift between Liu Xiaobo and the public. They not only failed to proactively expound on his theories of nonviolent resistance — the failure to do which goes against what Liu stood for in the first place — but in fact ended up playing the role of isolating him, and dampening the awareness of his political contribution among the Chinese citizenry. It must be observed, of course, that this circumstance to some degree reflects the fragmented and chaotic state of opposition politics, and the attenuation of civil society in post-2008 China, when Liu was detained and jailed. For all these reasons, evaluating afresh Liu Xiaobo’s remarkable contribution to Chinese opposition politics, including from the perspective of the Norwegian Nobel Committee when they gave him the prestigious award, will be a profitable exercise.
December 10, 2010, was the two year anniversary since Liu Xiaobo’s involvement in the “Charter 08” movement; it was also the United Nations’ Human Rights Day; and it was the day that the Norwegian Nobel Committee left an empty chair for Liu Xiaobo at the ceremony in which they awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize. The award ceremony speech recollected the history of Liu Xiaobo’s activism, from the 1989 Tiananmen student protests to the “Charter 08” movement, and praised him for his commitment to nonviolent activism; on this topic the chairman of the committee quoted Liu’s own words: “The greatness of non-violent resistance is that even as man is faced with forceful tyranny and the resulting suffering, the victim responds to hate with love, to prejudice with tolerance, to arrogance with humility, to humiliation with dignity, and to violence with reason.”
This is obviously an entirely appropriate summation and praise of Liu Xiaobo’s struggle for human rights — and yet, it still doesn’t fully make clear the special contribution Liu made to promoting resistance in China and political transition over the over 20 years since 1989. Liu is closer to an Aung San Suu Kyi than a Mandela, who at one point embraced armed resistance, or a Gusmao, the leader of East Timor’s resistance movement. Liu’s work far exceeds either the narrow praise or attacks afforded it by his typical supporters and critics. Liu Xiaobo’s contribution and influence have successors among today’s social and political activists. Every year during the June 4 memorial in Hong Kong, the seed that Liu planted can be seen, grown and blooming once again.
Simply put, when he was released from prison the second time in 1999, Liu picked up the pen instead of the sword, quickly becoming an active voice for political dissent. But more importantly, in the short period in which he was free, he was involved in the founding of three movements and organizations that were the embryonic form of China’s political opposition — this is what gives Liu his stature as China’s equivalent to a Mandela-type political figure.
Firstly, in 2000 Liu Xiaobo helped Ding Zilin, Zhang Xianling), and others, to initiate the “Tiananmen Mothers” movement. By 2004, 15 years after the Tiananmen movement, Tiananmen Mothers had collated a name list of 126 mothers of those killed; on May 16 of that year, 40 Tiananmen Mothers mourned together in a joint ceremony. The significance of this was that it turned what was in 1990 a small-scale group of mothers who were petitioning and writing appeals, into a social movement that enjoyed widespread public support and international currency. Tiananmen Mothers persists to this day, having become something like the Chinese version of Argentina’s “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.” This is just an example of the precious value of the example set by Liu’s nonviolent ideals that encourages more and more mothers and wives of human rights victims to join the struggle — the latest manifestation of which is the group of wives of the “709” human rights lawyers.
Secondly, in 2001, Liu Xiaobo and the exile democrats Bei Ling, Meng Lang, and others, established together what would become the Independent Chinese PEN Center; he also became its first president. It was an attempt to appeal to the widest possible number of Chinese political dissidents and writers. He turned the Center into a meeting ground for China’s rights defense activists and political dissidents and planted the seed for China’s opposition movements and online presence.
Thirdly, in 2008, 60 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rightswas promulgated, 30 years after the Xidan Democracy Wall movement, and 10 years after China signed (but did not ratify) the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Liu Xiaobo, Zhang Zuhua and others, in imitation of Czechoslovakia’s “Charter 77” movement, initiated a “Charter 08” for China. The goal was to mobilize, to the maximum extent, China’s forces of political opposition and to initiate a “gradual, peaceful, orderly, and manageable” transition to constitutional governance. Liu Xiaobo was arrested for this, charged with “inciting subversion of state power,” and sentenced to 11 years imprisonment.
These actions show that Liu Xiaobo is not only a hardworking dissident author but also a leader and organizer of political opposition. His superb leadership ability and political acumen allowed him to establish, during the course of the first decade of the 21st century, in a strict authoritarian environment, a movement that inherited the spirit of the Tiananmen democracy movement, an organizational network, and a nationwide opposition platform. In each instance, he changed the pessimistic attitude people had toward the political “circumstances,” and helped Chinese citizens stop waiting around and watching from the sidelines, instead of inspiring them to actively work for change themselves.
Some of these activities were publicized and learned about abroad, while others were kept quiet, and only those deeply involved knew what really happened. The organizers were as circumspect and low-key as Liu Xiaobo — silently and diligently working away in the post-1989 period of social transformation, advocating gradual transition like Liu Xiaobo. They gradually but steadfastly got past the muddled sense of opposition they felt during the 1989 movement, the vague “self-reflection” they went through in the early 1990s. They bid farewell to the often noisy and chaotic “overseas democracy movement” set off by the Xidan Democracy Wall and followed by large-scale exile after 1989. Instead, they worked to build the framework, in the era of China’s economic takeoff, social transformation, and the Internet, for a clear and purposeful opposition movement that would have a far-reaching impact on China’s development and the direction of its future political transition. Liu Xiaobo led this transition of China’s political opposition, exactly the way he abruptly left the U. S. as a visiting scholar in the later half of the 1989 student movement to exercise leadership. In both instances, his actions were rooted in mature thinking.
More valuable again was Liu Xiaobo’s continued insistence on non-violent resistance and political opposition, despite being sentenced to 11 years in prison. This is the dual meaning of Liu’s “I have no enemies” statement: persevering in non-violent resistance — rather than adopting a “fight to the death” style — is the only way to preserve space for political opposition in a highly authoritarian state, as well as to preserve the flexibility, possibility, and longevity of the opposition movement. Characteristic of this is Liu Xiaobo’s insistence in the court of upholding Article 35 of the Chinese constitution, regarding the rights to freedom of speech, the press, assembly, organization, marches, and demonstrations. In so doing he turned the criminal accusations against him into a political defense of his own constitutional rights and an examination of the judicial system. This is another important way for political opposition movements in China to engage in lawful struggle.
Apart from being welcomed by the opposition movement itself, this mode of resistance also has a strong appeal to the wider Chinese citizenry, including the burgeoning middle class, whose pursuit of the “good life” and social order it fits in well with. As Walter Benjamin writes in Theological-Political Fragment, the secular order founded in and oriented around the good life is constituted by a value outlook based on love, lenience, humility, dignity, and rationality — it transcends the relationship between the public and the sovereign or its police agents, as well as the ruling structure. This spirit was continued in the “New Citizens Movement” of Xu Zhiyong and others. That movement emphasized “liberty, justice, love” and was an attempt to, through the concept of “transparent, constitutional government” and the demand for “equality in education,” and so on, mobilize a growing urban middle class, and transform them into a new political force.
Thus, precisely in an authoritarian, materialist state full of human rights abuses, Liu Xiaobo’s voice in the courtroom that “I have no enemies,” injected into China’s human rights struggle and political opposition the Buddhist-inspired spirit of compassion of Aung San Suu Kyi, a spiritual power that shows a specially Asian character in its vision of the struggle for human rights and the transition to democracy. This was not only enough to sustain Liu through his imprisonment; it will also become part of his precious moral heritage and political legacy; it will win him wider public support, and it will have a long-lasting influence on the future of political opposition in China.
Dr. Wu Qiang (吴强) holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Duisburg-Essen in Germany. He is a researcher of social movements and a freelance writer.