By Nathan Faries
Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese citizen, has won the Nobel Peace Prize. An active participant in the Tian’anmen Square demonstrations and author of a 2008 petition calling for radical reform in the People’s Republic, Liu sits now in a prison in northeast China.
Liu is a good choice, a man of principle fighting a lonely struggle in an increasingly apathetic political climate. This new attention should reenergize human rights advocates and shine light on groups which Liu himself has supported: the mothers of Tian’anmen victims, for example (http://www.tiananmenmother.org/).
But will the Peace Prize push forward Liu’s cause of reform? The dissident himself sounds pessimistic. Liu Xiaobo believes change will inevitably come to China because of a natural human bent toward freedom, but he is not sure that he will live to see the reforms. He has trouble imagining a Chinese Gorbachev, and he has said there will be no “timeline for political reform” offered by the government of his China. Liu Xiaobo is willing to give his life for this cause, though he expresses no confidence that his eyes will see the new China for which he hopes.
Reform must come to China by this individual path, his model teaches. The Olympic and Nobel Committees are somehow irrelevant to the process, as are the will and words of the Chinese Communist Party. Liu Xiaobo and his ilk are trying to live out a new kind of “Chineseness,” an identity that depends neither on the government to grant freedom, nor on international bodies to pressure the Party to expand liberties. Such dependence is to miss the point, even to work against the ultimate goal.
Does Liu even believe himself to be a good candidate for the Prize? He has opposed grand gestures made in the service of his cause before. As Tibet-sympathizers and other groups criticized the IOC, saying Beijing should be denied their Olympic Games, Liu claimed this kind of national sacrifice was unnecessary: “We want the Games and we want human rights to be respected.” Liu won’t ask his fellow Chinese to give up the honor and pleasure of the Olympic Games; instead he lives out a more powerful personal sacrifice.
What stands in the way of that goal? The Chinese government is good at redefining the terms of debate. The Tian’anmen “incident” in 1989 started off as a conversation between citizens and their government, but ended up as a divide between intellectual and soldier; a political debate was recast as class conflict. Ever since 1989, university students all over China have been sent off to mandatory “military training” to heal this divorce between the intelligentsia and the peasant People’s Liberation Army. The government has succeeded in changing the subject from politics to social class.
And from politics to economics. There is economic inequality in China, and there are frequent protests, but nothing seems likely to grow into a national movement. A life of sacrifice to an abstraction like political freedom grows ever more difficult in the face of concrete freedoms like the ability to travel where you want and when you want in your own car. Life in China today moves along smoothly enough for most people; Liu Xiaobo is a man to be admired, not imitated.
Perhaps to my shame, I understand the political apathy of those masses of Chinese who choose not to follow the way of Liu Xiaobo. In many respects, China is moving in the right direction, however slowly. The Soviet Union’s traumatic experience with overnight reform is constantly before the Chinese people’s eyes. I can’t help but wonder if Liu Xiaobo’s sacrifice—though certainly noble—is really necessary. If China is changing, and can only change, slowly, does Liu need to live and die in a prison cell? Is Liu Xiaobo himself preaching gradualism while living out revolution? Do a few individuals need to suffer voluntarily in today’s China to make life better for future generations?
Bad things have happened and continue to happen in China at the hands of a government that does not care enough about the suffering of individuals. Given the current state of global economies, pressure from outsiders to reform, be it from Scandinavia or the United States, holds little to no sway over the Chinese government. This loss of outsider influence stands in stark contrast to the ever-increasing international economic and political leverage wielded by the Chinese Communist Party. We need the Communists to negotiate with North Korea and to underwrite our own national debt. The Americans will to play hardball with the CCP, never an immense pool to begin with, is quickly draining away.
Giving Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize may do nothing material to advance the cause of reform in China, given today's lack of revolutionary energy within China and without; but for the sacrifice he has offered up for the vague hope of some future good for all the rest of us, Liu Xiaobo has earned his reward.
Nathan Faries is associate professor in the English Department at the University of Dubuque. He has taught for nearly 15 years in the United States, Bejing, and Hong Kong. He is the author of The Inscrutably Chinese Church: How Narratives and Nationalism Continue to Divide Christianity.