Of Empty Chairs and Prizes

Wingrove on Liu Xiaobo, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Full text after the break.


Of Empty Chairs

The recent spat between China and the West over Nobel Peace prize winner, Liu Xiaobo demonstrates yet again the depth of misunderstanding – one might almost term it total incomprehension – between East and West. A failure to see the world as the other sees it.

Entrenched within our western, democratic system, itself constructed upon the rights of the individual – rights which stretch back eight hundred years to Magna Carta – we fail to take into account the fact that the East – and China in particular – has always done things differently. They have always seen the greater, social good as being far more important than individual freedoms. What is Confucianism, after all, but a codification of that; an attempt to provide social life in China with a behavioral framework?

Let’s look at things from their viewpoint for a moment. Through Chinese eyes. As they see it, we in the West have lost that sense of social duty. We have become self-indulgent, self-obsessed. Everything we do is “Me, me, me.” At every single turn we whine and moan and demand our ‘rights’, as if ‘rights’ were actually a law of nature and not the carefully nurtured end result of a thousand years of social struggle; of bloody sacrifice and an almost visionary belief in fairness.

Because the truth is, In the great globalized world we inhabit, ‘stuff’ has become more important than ideals. Fulfilling one’s dreams – whether that be winning X-Factor or getting the latest i-gadget – has become elevated above all else. We are truly living – as Madonna sang – in a material world, and such sacrifices as our ancestors made only a few generations ago, in the name of freedom, now seem to us merely romantic, maybe even absurd. I imagine that, from Chinese eyes, it’s not a pretty picture. We must look like the worst of spoiled children. No wonder the prospect of their own countrymen (and women) becoming like us horrifies them. Only what is the option? How are they to prevent this (as they see it) insidious process from infecting their own people?

Because that’s actually what lies behind this over-reaction by the Chinese state. The fear that they might lose control. That their citizens might become like ours. That freedom is a box which, once opened, will destroy China.

As they see it, what Liu Xiaobo is demanding in Charter 08, which he co-authored, and for which he is imprisoned, would tear China apart. For them the only answer is to keep a tight lid on things. And who can really blame them? They have the most difficult task in the world right now – that of riding the dragon of change; of playing Midwife to this massive transformation of their country without China coming apart at the seams, all of this in the shadow of the possibility that the eight hundred million Chinese who are still working the land will grow dissatisfied with their lot and, rising up, throw off the Communist yoke.

In the West, we don’t have to worry about that. We’ve had our revolutions. Only China’s latest might be yet to come. Which is why the Politburo are as they are. And which is why Liu Xiaobo is in that cell. For what is one man, after all, in the face of one and a half billion?

Okay. So what do we know about this one man? This Liu Xiaobo?

I know, from my reading, that, back in the summer of 1989, when I was beginning to publish Chung Kuo in the USA, Liu Xiaobo was at Columbia University in New York.  It was the time of the Tiananmen Square protests and, caught up in the cause, Liu Xiaobo returned to China and took part in the protests, which culminated in the massacre of June 4th. Arrested, he served two years imprisonment. On his release, however, he continued to campaign, and in 1996 he was jailed again, for three years, this time in a re-education camp. Finally, in 2008, he was arrested again and, charged with subverting the state, was sentenced to eleven years imprisonment, where he is now.

The decision of the Nobel Prize committee to award Liu Xiaobo the Peace Prize was the final straw for the Chinese government, who termed it an “obscenity”. Placing Liu Xia, Liu Xiaobo’s wife, under house arrest, they refused to allow anyone to go and accept the prize on Liu’s account. Hence the empty chair and the ominous echoes of 1936, the last time when a state – Nazi Germany in that instance – refused to allow one of its citizens to accept the award.

A bit of an own goal, that, no?

All I can say is that in this instance China’s Politburo has shown itself to be not only heavy-handed but  incredibly naïve. By making such a song and dance about the matter, they have focused the World’s media on that image of the empty chair. Had they let Liu Xiaobo go to Oslo, it would have generated some interest, obviously, but it would have been a five minute wonder. No one – and I’m sorry to say this, but it’s true – would really have given a damn. As it is, I’d estimate that a hundred times as many people now know Liu Xiaobo’s name, and who he is and what he stands for, than would have had they not caused all this stink, because that’s the way of it in the modern world. What’s that old saying (misappropriated by the old hag Thatcher herself) about press attention being the oxygen of publicity? It certainly proved to be in this instance, and China’s attempt to silence this quite courageous man, has now been drawn to our attention.

No wonder they’re trying to close down all mention of the issue on the internet.

All of that said, the Chinese politburo do have a viewpoint, and it must be considered. As Westerners we do not automatically hold the moral high ground, a point that Wikileaks, I feel, has proved quite clearly. Nor do I want to be an apologist for the Chinese government, but we do have a duty to our children’s children to recognize the problems that China has and try to help them overcome them, not lecture them and criticize all the time. It is not our place to impose our values on China. We’ve been doing that since 1842, and look where that’s got us!

One last thing. This has been the hardest of all my blogs to write, mainly because – as even-handed as I wished to be – I was conscious all the while that if I were a Chinese citizen, I would not have the freedom to write a blog like this. That I would be shut down, maybe even paid a visit and hauled away – like Liu Xiaobo – and thrown into a cell. For having an opinion – something we take for granted here in the West.

Empty chairs. One day, I hope, things will have improved enough for us to look back and view this as the teething troubles of a new China. A China that, even as it provides for its people, allows them to think for themselves, and express themselves, not to damage China but to make it strong.  A partner to the West and not an enemy.

David Wingrove   17 December 2010

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