Remembering Liu Xiaobo’s moral critique of modern China

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning dissident is representative of a tragic generation of intellectuals in China who had some voice in the wider world, and almost none in their home country.
This photo illustration shows a collection of Taiwanese newspapers reporting on the death of China's Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo.
This photo illustration shows a collection of Taiwanese newspapers reporting on the death of China's Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. Credit: SAM YEH/AFP via Getty Images
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The great critic Samuel Johnson pointed out sharply over two centuries ago that if someone wanted to truly understand themselves, they had best listen to what their enemies said about them. In contemporary China, dissidents are the baddest of the bad, according to the Communist Party leadership elite. They are disloyal, enemies of the people, opponents of the great national mission for renaissance and rejuvenation. Since 1949, to be a dissident in China has never been a comfortable place. These days, few pay for their contrarian positions with their lives, as they did in the Maoist era but plenty suffer ostracisation, poverty, and deep isolation. This is regardless of whether they are eventually proved right. In fact, that seems to make their position even worse.

In the case of Liu Xiaobo, he had the consolation during his lifetime of recognition from the outside world. In 2010, to the fury of Beijing, he was awarded the country’s second Nobel Prize for Peace. Its first had been for the Dalai Lama in 1989. Neither were welcome for Beijing. At the time of the Oslo-based committee’s announcement, Liu was already in prison, serving a sentence for what used to be called crimes against the state, but was by then classified under vague security measures. At the awards ceremony, he was represented by an empty chair. In 2017, he died of cancer, while still serving his sentence.

This makes the irony of his main criticisms of the party and the values system in China being accepted and adopted, after a fashion, by current leader Xi Jinping even more bitter and striking. In his life, those who knew Liu could appreciate his fierce intellect and self-confidence. They were also able to witness his merciless treatment of what he regarded as hypocrisy, sloppy thinking, and cant around him. Liu’s personality type, with his sharp wit and severe words, would not have been an easy one to accommodate in any environment. At least in the West, there would have been space, and an audience, to engage with his arguments and ideas. In his final years of freedom, based in China, one of his few sources of income, and ways of reaching an audience, was through the internet. The readership for his articles was limited. Of the few online pieces he was finally indicted for, their click count at the time was in the low thousands.

Rereading Liu’s work four years after his untimely death is an opportunity to appreciate again how strangely aligned his views of contemporary China’s plight were with the very different figure of Xi Jinping. In the early 2000s, while party boss in the huge, wealthy coastal province of Zhejiang, Xi had taken to berating leading cadres for their slackness, lack of faith in party dogma, and collusion with business and commerce. They wanted, he explained in one article, to be ‘good pals’ with everyone, and had forgotten their primary function – to do politics and serve the public.

It is not likely that Liu would have had much truck with someone like Xi, or much sympathy for the position Xi was in, despite these surface similarities. For Liu, his critique may have started from the same place, but was far more systemic and much deeper. For him, the issue was the party itself, and the way it gripped power as though its life depended on it. What, he asked indirectly through the pieces he published from the 1980s onwards, was the point of power if it was only for itself? To isolate and then defend political power as if it had some validity solely on its own was like buying a car and then refusing to use it. Who, after all, was the party serving, Liu asked? His answer was emphatic: the party was a network that looked after itself. That part of his message was the one the authorities were most angry at, and which Xi would have definitely not agreed with, because it challenged their fundamental legitimacy.

Officials such as Xi knew about this crisis of party faith, and accepted it was a huge problem. Their remedy, however, was utterly different to Liu’s who felt only political reform and democratisation would solve things. For the authorities, preserving the party no matter what was the only route they could consider. In 2013, they launched an anti-corruption campaign to clean cadre behaviour up, enforced ideological training, and, to ensure public support, ratcheted up nationalism. Liu foresaw this. In an essay from 2002, he labelled it ‘Thuggish and Bellicose Patriotism.’ This, in his diagnostic, mixed up Chinese disdain for the outside world, feelings of resentment at its often disastrous modern history, constant pressure to just get by economically and in daily life for the majority of citizens, brainwashing at school to inculcate jingoistic sentiments, and, perhaps most toxic of all, ‘a national psychology that regularly alternates between extreme self-abasement and extreme self-aggrandisement.’

Liu’s critique of contemporary China was a moral one, above all. That supplies the link with Xi, who was also trying to restore the Communist party’s moral standing after years of its officials being persistently on the take, swimming in the benefits of a China that had maintained lip service to socialism, but was becoming even more brutally capitalist than America or Europe. In one essay, Liu stated that ‘in spiritual life, post-totalitarian China has entered an Age of Cynicism.’ In the 1990s, and even more in the 2000s, the country had entered an era in which ‘people no longer believe in anything and in which their words do not match their actions … Even high officials and other Communist party members no longer believe party verbiage.’

It is hard to think of a more sobering description of some types of Chinese diplomatic behaviour in 2021 than that offered by Liu two decades before. In that sense, his was a prophetic voice – and like most such voices, greeted with great resentment and dismissiveness at the time he spoke. It is in the area where Liu talks of Chinese society under capitalism with Chinese characteristics being a kind of obscene erotic show, where everything is commodified and given a political utility, that his language is most unforgiving and uncompromising. In this China, the ‘serve the people’ ethos of the Maoist foundation era, the promise made by the party to lift up people materially and culturally, has long been hollowed out, so that, by the 2000s, it was a society whose political leadership was using a rhetoric utterly adrift from the kinds of language used by ordinary people trying to live their lives, and society was in almost perpetual ferment.

That disconnect was clearly the thing that bothered Xi and those who supported his eventual rise to power in 2012. China’s path since then however is not one that Liu would have endorsed. Nationalism has intensified. The party certainly has made its officials at least act like they believe in their ideology, even though the incentive for this is almost certainly to remain in power and maintain privileges in the political realm, rather than holding to the content of belief itself. Liu himself can finally be seen as representative of a tragic generation of intellectuals in China who had some voice in the wider world, and almost none in their home country. His immense courage was clear from the way he refused to even contemplate what many of his generation in his position did, and move abroad. The manner of his death was one of the few moments of the Xi era where the general air of self-satisfaction and pushiness with the outside world was momentarily dulled.

It is an interesting question to ponder what Liu would have said in a world where America and Europe, places whose systems he clearly held in high regard, seem to have lost much of their own conviction and confidence, and been beset by their own crisis of belief. Maybe his sharp diagnostic intellect could have been of service in showing where they too had gone wrong. One hopes that they would have done a better job of acknowledging the validity of any points he would have made, unlike the government of China, who if they indeed accepted his criticisms, rewarded him with imprisonment and silence.

Kerry Brown

Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King​'s College London, and Associate Fellow of the Asia Pacific Programme at Chatham House. He is the author of over 20 books on modern China, the most recent of which is China: A History​ (Polity Press, Cambridge).

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