Han Han, the handsome 28-year-old race car driver, bestselling novelist, publisher, singer and China’s most popular blogger, has never been known for delicate restraint. Articles such as ‘The Literary Scene is One Big Fart: Cut the Pretentiousness’ and ‘Why Do Modern Chinese Poetry and Poets Even Exist?’, as well as speeches such as the one to university students into which he dropped Samuel Johnson’s quotation “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”, have won Han Han cult status as a cultural provocateur. He ranked on Time magazine’s 2010 list of the world’s 100 most influential people. Some of Han Han’s fans were mystified when, on 8 October 2010, words seemed, perhaps for the first time, to have failed him. His blog post for that day, full and untranslated, read: “ ”.
When I last checked, over 1 million readers had viewed this cryptic message. Among the more than 25,000 comments, the multiple effusions (“Love you!”) and myriad confusions (“Huh?”), was one that quoted from the first volume of Marx and Engels’ Collected Works:
The government only listens to its own voice, and it knows it is only listening to its own voice, but it tricks itself into believing that what it’s hearing is the voice of the people, and what’s more, it requires of the people that they support this type of self-deception.
It was that day, as Han Han’s more cluey fans realised, that the Norwegian Nobel Committee had announced the award of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to the imprisoned Chinese dissident writer and pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo, for what it called “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”. Liu is serving an 11-year sentence for his role in drafting Charter 08, a petition calling for constitutional change, multi-party democracy, an independent judiciary, freedom of expression and association, protection of private property and a social welfare system in China, among other things. His sentence, the longest ever imposed under the 1997 law against “inciting subversion of state power”, was handed down on Christmas Day, 2009.
The government of China reacted furiously to the announcement: awarding the Nobel to a “criminal”, a spokesman said, was “a complete violation of the principles of the prize and an insult to the Peace Prize itself”. As congratulations and appeals for his immediate release poured in from previous laureates including the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the former Czech president Václav Havel, heads of state and others, the Chinese official response grew increasingly strident. Commentary progressed from attacks on the judges and the motivations of the “wolf pack of anti-China radicals” in the West generally, to attacks on both Xiaobo’s credibility as a thinker and worth as a human being.
In a widely published article titled ‘The Real Liu Xiaobo’, the official press dredged up quotes from his writings and interviews over the years to paint a portrait of a money-grubbing, traitorous and arrogant villain. Though most of the quotations were mangled or incomplete, and all were taken out of context, I recognised several from the days when I first met Xiaobo through my then husband, the China scholar Geremie Barmé.
In 1986, Xiaobo, then a relatively unknown university lecturer and literary critic, had delivered an incendiary speech at a literary conference convened to celebrate the accomplishments of Chinese literature in the post-Mao period. As Geremie later wrote, Xiaobo “managed to sour what had been a cheery gathering exuding an ambience of self-congratulation” by declaring that Chinese literature was, in fact, in “crisis”. The targets of his harangue included many of those present. He achieved instant notoriety.
You might even call him the Han Han of his time, minus the rally cars, celebrity style and income. It was a very different time. Chairman Mao was only ten years dead and the reform era eight years old. Intellectuals – poets, writers, critics and philosophers – were the rock stars of the age; China’s first actual rock star, Cui Jian, burst onto the scene that same year. China was in a volatile state of transition, with the government alternately loosening and tightening the reins of ideological control as it tried to work out how to modernise its economy while remaining credibly communist and in power.
China’s people weathered a series of political campaigns, including one in 1981 against a film, Bitter Love, that ended with the image of a question mark; a 1983 clampdown on “spiritual pollution” (including pop music, tight clothing and obscure poetry) and a 1987 campaign against “bourgeois liberalisation”. Ordinary people responded to these campaigns with a mix of alarm, frustration and increasing hilarity. My birthday in 1987 fell at the height of the anti-bourgeois liberalisation campaign: Xiaobo and other friends presented me with a cake they had decorated with the political slogans du jour.
Throughout the second half of the ’80s, Xiaobo loosed the cannons of his brash and sardonic wit on establishment and anti-establishment intellectuals alike, on foreign “discoverers” and their Chinese cultural “pets”, and on China’s “narrow nationalists”. If the Communist Party’s cultural tsars loathed him, so did many in the soi-disant underground. He enjoyed lampooning the pretensions of Chinese literati – including, incidentally, their vocal hankering for a Nobel Prize.
His scattershot sniping didn’t always hit the mark. Geremie once dressed him down for attacking foreign Sinologists without having read any of their works. I took him to task for insisting that the female mind was biologically unsuited to the higher realms of philosophy and mathematics. He conceded Geremie’s point but, infuriatingly, not mine. Casual misogyny is an ongoing feature of the Chinese rogue intellectual scene: Han Han wrote in a review of the new film Confucius (2010) that female directors should stick to films “about love or life” as they had trouble grasping more complex and abstract themes.
Occasionally Xiaobo managed to scandalise just about everyone. In 1988, while passing through Hong Kong, then still a British territory, he remarked that what China required for real, progressive change was “300 years of colonialisation”. The Chinese government has used this statement, which Xiaobo reaffirmed in 2007, to show him up as a traitor; it outrages some members of pro-democracy circles as well. I imagine that his extravagant 2003 praise of George W Bush’s War on Terror and the Allied invasion of Iraq (“Never in the history of mankind has there been a war to eradicate tyranny that can compare with the war to overthrow Saddam in the speed with which it was launched, the civilised manner in which it was fought and the straightforwardness of its victory!”), support he reaffirmed as late as 2006, similarly flusters some of his supporters in western liberal circles.
Back in the ’80s, I sometimes found Xiaobo’s unending, opinionated, stuttering rants – during which he tended to quote extensively from his own work – a trial. Yet his feral intelligence made him an amusing and stimulating companion. And for all his bluster, he was always warm-hearted and lovely to me. Because both Geremie and my great friend the singer–songwriter Hou Dejian (the subject of my 2001 memoir The Monkey and the Dragon) grew close to Xiaobo, I ended up seeing him frequently.
Xiaobo left China for the first time in 1988 at the age of 33 to attend a conference on Chinese theatre and film in Oslo that, he wrote in a letter to Geremie, he found “agonisingly boring”. After various run-ins with his hosts, he claimed he felt as isolated in Norway as he ever had in China. He then took up visiting fellowships at the University of Hawaii and Columbia University in New York, where he produced such a torrent of work that he even surprised himself.
It was during this time that his focus became more political. Having grown up in the violent days of the Cultural Revolution when society was militarised down to its metaphors and ballerinas danced with guns, the philosophical notion of civil society held a natural appeal to Xiaobo and this became a theme in his writings.
Back in China, meanwhile, the student-led protest movement sparked by the death of moderate Communist Party leader Hu Yaobang on 15 April 1989 was growing in strength. In their marches and speeches, the students agitated for political change and a free press. Xiaobo decided to return to Beijing. As he said to a friend: “Haven’t we been preparing for this moment all our lives?” If return to China at such a time seemed risky, he took inspiration from his philosophical guides Rousseau and Nietzsche. For them, too, the price of freedom had been “suffering and danger”, he wrote.
Yet back home, Xiaobo quickly grew critical of the student-led movement with its cult of charismatic leaders and an emotive lingo of revolution and sacrifice that took its cues from the political culture of Chinese communism. The students spoke of “masses”; Xiaobo preferred “citizens”. He wrote: “Rationality and order, calmness and moderation must be the rules of our struggle for democracy; hatred must be avoided at all costs. Popular resentment towards authoritarianism in China can never lead us to wisdom, only to an identical form of blind ignorance, for hatred corrupts wisdom.” As Geremie later observed, “Liu Xiaobo, a figure labelled in China as the evil champion of nihilism and the irrational was, ironically, now the chief advocate of positive and rational civil action.” To get the students to listen, Xiaobo decided to lead a hunger strike in the square on 2 June 1989; he persuaded my friend Hou and two others to join him.
I’ve written extensively in The Monkey and the Dragon about Xiaobo and Hou’s quixotic adventures on Tiananmen Square and of their heroic, courageous actions early on the morning of 4 June. Even as the army was shooting down citizens along the approach roads to the square, Liu and Hou insisted on the principles of non-violent resistance: Xiaobo famously confiscated and destroyed an automatic weapon that had fallen into the hands of one of the protesters. After Hou persuaded the army to give the students a chance to evacuate the square, the pair convinced the students themselves to go. Between them they saved countless lives.
Later that day, they took refuge in the apartment of the Australian cultural counsellor, the novelist Nick Jose, where I too was staying. Over the next few days, the growing band of Chinese and Australians in the flat literally stared down the barrel of a gun – a tank parked outside had pointed its cannon at our window.
Whenever I was rattled, by gunfire, by racing convoys of armoured personnel carriers in the middle of the night or simply by the emotional fireworks provided by Hou’s angry ex-girlfriend, who blamed me for the collective decision not to let her into the flat, Xiaobo remained remarkably calm, comforting and good-humoured.
The day came when diplomats, fearing internecine military conflict, decided to evacuate foreign citizens from Beijing. Australians were told to gather overnight at the embassy. By now I planned to leave China with Hou, who had a passport and, as a celebrity, no chance of laying low. Nick and I would sneak Hou into the embassy overnight, before our flight; we asked Xiaobo, who had lost his passport on the square, if he wanted us to get him into the embassy too. He said no. He wrote in his 1992 (Chinese language) memoir Monologue of a Survivor of Doomsday, “Linda was crying as we kissed goodbye for the last time; when her lips were pressed against my face, I felt chilled to my very bones. It was a desolate, sorrowful, uncertain parting …”
That evening, a call came through for me at the embassy. It was a girl who’d come with Xiaobo to Nick’s place. They’d been cycling through the streets when an unmarked van screeched up and men in plain clothes grabbed him, threw him into the back of the van and drove off. Not knowing if Xiaobo was even still alive, Hou and I clung together, shaking and weeping. I cried nearly the entire way back to Australia. There, in a state of obsessive near-madness, I wrote up long reports on Xiaobo for organisations such as Amnesty International, which adopted him as a Prisoner of Conscience, and helped organise the first petition of writers, including Patrick White and David Malouf, to plead for his release. I endured months of nightmares about the events of 4 June from which I’d sometimes awake screaming. All the fear and distress that I felt converged on a single point and that point was Xiaobo.
What happened between Xiaobo and myself after he was finally let out of prison in 1991 was a major factor in the break-up of my marriage with Geremie, who is big-hearted enough to remain my best friend to this day. At the time, Liu Xia, Xiaobo’s wife since 1998, was married to another of Xiaobo’s closest friends.
I haven’t seen Xiaobo for over 15 years. But he has a way of keeping himself in the news. The events of 1989 transformed him into the dissident he is today. Banned from publication on the mainland, he continued to publish widely in the international Chinese press and presided for a number of years over China’s unofficial PEN Centre. Charter 08 is only the most recent of his petitions for change. He’s been in prison, labour camp or under house arrest numerous times as a result. A mutual friend, the veteran China correspondent Jane Macartney, recently wrote in the Times of London that back in the ’90s, after Xiaobo emerged from three years in a labour camp, she asked him why he persisted in doing things that would keep landing him in one sort of detention or another. “He threw back his head with laughter: ‘What else am I going to do? How else could I live? This is my life.’”
As a frequent visitor to mainland China since 1980, I’ve been witness to nearly the entire reform era. I’ve seen phenomenal and widespread improvement in people’s material wellbeing, job satisfaction, personal and social freedoms. Friends who used to ask me to bring them shampoo, cooking oil and even green vegetables from Hong Kong now take me out to restaurants I can’t afford. With a plethora of music festivals and venues such as Mao Livehouse catering to fans of every genre of rock and pop, it’s hard to credit how controversial Cui Jian was when he first emerged with his guitar and long hair in 1986. And whereas, back in the day, travel abroad was a fantasy for most, today’s Chinese urban white-collar workers may holiday on the Gold Coast.
China is booming, but it’s hardly paradise. People worry about near-pandemic levels of corruption, environmental degradation, inadequate protection of workers’ rights and safety, the lack of a safety net for society’s most vulnerable and the expanding inequality of wealth, privilege and access to education and medical services. The government, too, is concerned about many of these problems. The crux of the issue of even moderate political reform in China is this: is the Communist Party capable of solving these and other problems on its own and, if not, what ought the people of China be able to do about it? Who is entitled to have this discussion? Finally, how can concerned citizens exercise their constitutional rights without fear of retribution, and are these rights sufficient?
It wasn’t Liu Xiaobo who said, “The people’s wishes for, and needs for, democracy and freedom are irresistible” – it was Premier Wen Jiabao, speaking to CNN in October 2010. What Wen meant by democracy and freedom, and what he is prepared or able to do about it remains unclear, particularly since his remarks were removed from all domestic reports on the interview. As for Xiaobo, his own somewhat meritocratic views on democracy in China don’t even extend to universal suffrage.
Whatever one thinks of the detailed content of Liu Xiaobo’s ideas, they’re just ideas, expressed in words. It would seem by now that China is strong and secure enough not to have to lock people up on account of their words – and Liu Xiaobo is hardly the only one speaking out. Just days after the announcement of the Nobel Prize came another startling piece of news: 23 senior members of the Communist Party called for a free press and an end to censorship. They included Li Rui, who once served as Mao Zedong’s personal secretary, Hu Jiwei, a former director of the People’s Daily, a former deputy director of the Xinhua News Agency and other veteran party journalists, publishers and academics – including some with military affiliations.
Earlier this year, I was in conversation with a Chinese government adviser. We had been talking about perceptions of China in the outside world. The adviser suddenly asked, “Why do people in the West care so about Liu Xiaobo – why are they so hostile to China on account of one person’s human rights when we’ve managed to raise an entire nation out of poverty?” I said that the politics of individuals and particular nations aside, independent human rights organisations, at least, were not inherently hostile to China: they were also fiercely critical of the US over its use of torture, among other things, of Australia’s treatment of Indigenous people, and all countries that locked up people for speaking out. The reason human rights campaigners cared about Liu Xiaobo’s human rights, I said, was not that he was Chinese, but that he was human. He is human. I’m not sure if the message got through.
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