The Fundamental Force

“I have no enemies and no hatred. None of the police who monitored, arrested, and interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who indicted me, and none of the judges who judged me are my enemies,” Liu Xiaobo said in his 2009 “Final Statement” to the Chinese court that sentenced him to eleven years’ imprisonment for “inciting subversion of state power.”

“Hatred can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience,” Liu continued. “That is why I hope to be able to transcend my personal experiences as I look upon our nation’s development and social change, to counter the regime’s hostility with utmost goodwill, and to dispel hatred with love.”

Liu’s goodwill, courage, and humbling example were recognized by the Nobel Committee earlier this month when, to near universal if muted acclaim, it awarded the imprisoned activist the Nobel Peace Prize for his steadfast nonviolent resistance to the tyrannical rule of his country’s Communist Party. The Communist government, long frustrated by the failure of a Chinese citizen to receive a Nobel, reacted predictably, denouncing the decision and issuing veiled threats to those championing Liu’s cause. News of the award was expunged from the Internet and airwaves, and Liu’s wife was placed under house arrest.

A literary critic and political essayist, Liu played a prominent role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, where he helped save hundreds of lives by convincing the student demonstrators to leave the square without resorting to violence. He was arrested and jailed until 1991, and he lost his university teaching position. Undeterred, he continued to write in favor of gradual, nonviolent political reform, individual rights, and the autonomy of civil society. In 1996 the regime sentenced him to three years in a labor camp. As China prepared to host the 2008 Olympics, Liu and a handful of other prominent dissidents issued “Charter 08,” calling once again for China to reform itself along liberal democratic lines and to honor its obligations, under international agreements and its own constitution, to protect basic human rights such as freedom of expression and assembly.

Nonviolent resistance to Soviet and Eastern European communism, followed by communism’s stunning collapse, was one of the great triumphs of the human spirit. Moral and political support from governments and groups in the West was crucial to sustaining the morale and determination of dissidents. It is no surprise, then, that Liu’s Charter 08 was modeled on “Charter 77,” issued in 1977 by a group of Czech activists led by Václav Havel, another writer and advocate of nonviolence, who was imprisoned for courageously resisting Communist tyranny. Havel has spoken out in support of Liu, reminding those who despair of democratic change in China that “it is important to encourage the political prisoners and to make sure that they know that they are not by themselves, that the world knows about them, and that the work [they are doing] has a certain meaning. And the other important reason is that this action makes the government know it can’t just do whatever it wishes.”

In his essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel insisted that those living under political tyranny must nonetheless strive to live lives of moral and intellectual integrity. Havel’s thinking has had an obvious influence on Liu. “Regardless of how great the freedom-denying power of a regime and its institutions is, every individual should still fight to the best of his/her ability to live as a free person, that is, make every effort to live an honest life with dignity,” Liu writes in “Changing the Regime by Changing Society.” “When those who pursue freedom publically disclose it and practice what they preach, as long as they manage to be fearless in the small details of everyday life, what they say and do in everyday life will become the fundamental force that will topple the system of enslavement.”

Liu is not naive. He recognizes that democratic change will come to China only gradually. Nonviolence, he thinks, is the best insurance against the danger that, in overcoming one kind of tyranny, the victors will rush to impose another. Nor is he dismissive of the enormous strides China has made economically and socially in the past thirty years. He sees a link between economic and political freedom, and between China’s new engagement with the world and the country’s gradual liberalization. Liu’s principled dedication to civil disobedience, rooted in both his faith in his fellow man and his frank patriotism, will remind Americans of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., another Nobel Peace Prize winner. Liu’s vision of a just society, like King’s, will strengthen his country, not subvert it.


Related: Torched: How a Political Protest Became an Olympic Event, by Nicholas Clifford

Surviving Somehow, Nicholas Clifford's review of In Search of My Homeland: A Memoir of a Chinese Labor Camp, by Er Tai Gao

Socrates in Shanghai, by Mark C. Taylor

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