Jane Tang | Radio Free Asia

Dissident author, poet, and musician Liao Yiwu fled China in 2011 to live in Germany after suffering harassment, imprisonment, torture, and abject poverty for years as a result of his criticism of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. He has published a string of books and article collections exposing the darker side of life under single party rule in mainland China, and continues to write and publish in exile. He spoke to RFA’s Mandarin Service about his latest book about the emergence of COVID-19 in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, which is soon to be published in Taiwan:

Liao Yiwu: I wrote a book titled When the Wuhan Virus Arrives, which is a factual story about the pandemic. The story begins when citizen journalist Li Zehua goes to a top-security virology lab [in Wuhan] and is hunted down by the authorities. That takes us to the second story line, in which an exchange scholar from Wuhan returns to China from the U.S. for Lunar New Year, but finds the city under lockdown. By the time he gets home, his wife has died of the virus. Later, he gets detained by police for talking about the origin of the virus online.

RFA: You say there has been a change in attitude towards China in Europe, as evidenced by the recent trip to Europe by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi. When did that change start happening?

Liao Yiwu: Probably around the death of [Nobel peace laureate and veteran dissident] Liu Xiaobo. In 2017, I helped to draft a document calling for the release of Liu Xiaobo [from a prison hospital]. We did the absolute best we could at the time, but Liu was still effectively murdered by the Chinese Communist Party in prison. They didn’t make a single concession, and everyone could see that Liu Xiaobo died horribly.

RFA: What did the EU learn from that incident?

Liao Yiwu: I can’t really comment on that. I can only record history as it happens. I think that the [1989] Tiananmen massacre provides a valuable lesson to Western countries in their dealings with China. From that point onwards, the West should have understood that it is dealing with a murderous regime.

Now, that process has continued, almost to the point where we are in the last battle. All kinds of blatant human rights violations have come to light, from the imposition of the national security law on Hong Kong, to Xinjiang and Tibet. If the West continues to do business with the Chinese Communist Party, then we could see the end of the world as we know it. It’s terrifying.

RFA: You once said you were greatly inspired by meeting some of those who protested on Tiananmen Square in 1989. What do you see as the similarities and differences between the 1989 democracy movement and that of Hong Kong?

Liao Yiwu: On June 4, 1989, they used an old-fashioned method to suppress the protests, sending in more than 200,000 regular troops, tanks, and armored cars to attack civilians. Hong Kong had the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration … and is a cosmopolitan city. But a key factor is terrain. It’s harder to send in large columns of tanks, and it would take far longer to carry out such a massacre in Hong Kong. But the authorities have been killing people in the democracy movement. If you really investigate in detail, you will find that the numbers of dead and missing people is quite shocking. Where are these people?

RFA: Many of your books record details of torture and imprisonment. How do you deal with pain and suffering like that?

Liao Yiwu: I have myself served time as a political prisoner. During my time in prison, I came into contact with a large number of so-called thugs [former protesters on Tiananmen Square]. My book Bullets and Opium: Real-Life Stories of China After the Tiananmen Square Massacre, is partly set in Beijing and partly in Sichuan. It’s about the people I was in prison with. I just invited them to make their voices heard. It was first published in Germany at that time, and the public was shocked. It was launched in the United States in 2019. Critics consider it to be the most important testimony since 1940, because most of these victims were in China, and some had been jailed several times, but the root cause was always the Tiananmen massacre.

RFA: And yet they continue to resist tyranny. What kind of people are they?

Liao Yiwu: They started out young and full of enthusiasm. Now, they have gotten old, like my friend Li Bifeng, who was nearly 60 by the time he got out the last time, and only in his 20s when he went in. They are unwavering in their beliefs in the face of such hopelessness.

RFA: The central metaphor of Bullets and Opium is that bullets were used to deal with unarmed civil unrest, while the opium of economic development was offered to numb people’s pain. Has this model changed in the past 30 years?

Liao Yiwu: It has now been extended to Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia, and it has even spread to some politicians in the West. It is as difficult for them to cut off their relationship with the Chinese Communist Party as it is to quit opium when you’re addicted. Many Western countries have become deeply addicted [to China trade]. In the past, they have aided and abetted the murderous Chinese regime in return for pockets bulging with cash.

Right now we are going through a process of detoxification. All of this high-tech spying must be eradicated if we to truly quit our habit. Otherwise, nowhere will be safe. It’ll be like Orwell’s 1984.

RFA: So this book is also a kind of warning?

Liao Yiwu: Yes, that if you don’t actively promote democracy, dictatorship will expand to engulf the West. This what we are seeing now. We will be hit by snowballing humanitarian crises. Dictatorships will continue to cause humanitarian disasters, because they will keep pushing their agenda until they have taken over all of the world’s science and technology, and control the economy. This is called rule by human weakness; if they push enough opium on us, we won’t be able to resist.

RFA: How do we deal with the backlash?

Liao Yiwu: You have to be firm. We must believe that a democratic system is the best system. Only democracy can bring the dawn to mankind. We cannot waver in this respect.

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