Francis Moriarty: Liu Xiaobo can RIP, but China cannot


HONG KONG — The death of Chinese dissident and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo on Thursday was as every bit as heartbreaking as it was inevitable. Liu can at last rest in peace. But the same peace cannot be had for the Chinese government that relentlessly hounded him in life and drove him to an early grave.

Beijing will try to remove all mention of Liu from China's cyberspace. Every time another critic dies at the hands of the state's ruthless machinery of repression, it's one more line in the eventual funeral notice of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. The people's dictatorship is so nervous about Liu's passing that its vast machinery of internet policing is hard at work not only blocking and removing all references to Liu himself, but also to the letters R.I.P. even where no name is mentioned.

Behind China's Great Firewall, even an empty space can speak volumes.

Almost any reader of this column outside China will know more about Liu than do most people within China. At the very least, you will have seen his name in connection with being awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. He was not allowed to receive his award in person and was depicted at the ceremony as an empty chair.

Ironically, many Chinese will only be aware of his name because they have seen it in denunciations of him issued by party propaganda organs, or in the court reports of his sentencing for being an alleged enemy of the state. The reasons behind why he's been considered such an enemy will not be disseminated. There would be no way to reference them without humiliating the government and the party.

What has been officially disseminated is a video of a visit by a pair of foreign cancer experts to Liu's hospital bedside, where they are seen and heard acknowledging his treatment by Chinese doctors. The visitors contradicted previous advice that he could not be sent abroad and that no alternative treatment could be had, but that was really beside the point. Their opinions were not what counted. What mattered was their presence in white coats.

Strictly propaganda

The cynical and self-serving footage fulfilled its purpose: Liu was shown being examined by foreign doctors, itself an extraordinary phenomenon, and they were apparently approving of his course of treatment. Thus the police state that imprisoned him for years — and simultaneously detained his wife, Lu Xia, under conditions so demanding that she has reportedly suffered emotional and physical damage — is depicted as beneficent and caring, willing to go to great humanitarian lengths even for those who oppose it.

The dying patient and the visiting doctors, one American and the other German, were all used for propaganda.

Why does China's establishment hate Liu Xiabo so much? The answer is that even in death, Liu embodies a rejection of what China's system stands for today.

The bespectacled Liu was once a lawyer who was free to go abroad. But he was changed by the military's bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Beijing's Tiananmen Square, where he had urged student demonstrators to leave before the troops moved in.

Liu subsequently renounced his travel privileges and, in later years, rejected exile in exchange for a confession of guilt. In a nation where people fall over themselves to leave or to send their children (and money) overseas, Liu's denial of his liberties was strikingly against the grain. Moreover, it carried a suggestion of not just idealism but a kind of wispy romanticism commonly associated with some ancient incorruptible mandarin.

The comparison is apt. Liu was an extremely thoughtful, scholarly, and highly prolific writer and analyst. He was persistent, durable and decent, not to mention non-violent and, by most standards, moderate — so much so that he was sometimes criticized by other dissident intellectuals.

His great crime was calling for a constitutional democracy in Charter 08, a document published in 2008. For this, Liu was tried and sentenced to 11 years in prison for subversion.

Although China's leaders pay lip service to traditional Confucian values of modesty and integrity, in fact they view good character as anathema, just as it has been seen at times by previous dynasties and other regimes.

The British imperialists despised a British-trained lawyer named Mohandas Gandhi. The Nazis refused to let pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, a journalist, receive his Nobel in 1936 while imprisoned in a concentration camp. Like Liu, his medical care was too late to save him and he died in custody. South Africa jailed lawyer Nelson Mandela for opposing apartheid. In the U.S., the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover worked to discredit the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

During Hong Kong's annual protest march on July 1, a number of demonstrators carried papier mach s replicas of empty chairs over their shoulders or strapped to their chests. No one needed any explanation. Whether as a missing word, a missing abbreviation or an empty seat, Liu Xiaobo continues to speak from the beyond.

Sometimes building walls, even Great Firewalls, just does not work.

Francis Moriarty is an independent journalist and broadcaster covering Hong Kong, mainland China and Asia. He is a 1969 graduate of Williams College.


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