The late Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who passed away from liver cancer on Thursday after spending the last eight years of his life in jail, famously wrote, “I have no enemies and no hatred.” His words were intended to be a part of his final statement during his December 2009 trial, at which he was charged with “inciting subversion of state power.” But he was never allowed to make any last remarks. When his note was later published as an essay, readers discovered that Liu had even thanked, by name, his prosecutors and the cell warden at the detention center where he had been held. At the time, some Chinese dissidents criticized him for forgiving his oppressors and saw it as a form of capitulation. But the statement surely played a role in the decision of the Nobel Peace Prize committee when it awarded him the prize in 2010 “for his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”
Over the years, Liu’s influence has grown even as his voice has been silenced. Most Chinese dissidents have chosen nonviolent methods to try to change the Chinese regime. The New Citizens movement led by civil rights activist Xu Zhiyong asked its members to speak and act as citizens under the Chinese constitution, which includes the right to vote and criticize the government. Xu subsequently received a four-year sentence in 2014 for “gathering a crowd to disrupt public order.” During this “rights protection” movement, lawyers and activists tried to use the Chinese courts to protect victims of rights abuses; some 300 of them were rounded up in July 2015, and a number still remain in jail or are in custody. In 2015, five feminist activists were arrested after demonstrating against sexual harassment and domestic violence.
In China, nonviolent protest has been met with pervasive surveillance, harassment, random violence, and criminal prosecution. What this reveals, of course, is the regime’s sense of vulnerability. Ironically, survey after survey shows that the Chinese government enjoys high levels of trust and approval among the Chinese population. But the regime seems to understand that its popularity is due to economic growth, information control (few ordinary Chinese citizens have heard of Liu Xiaobo), and repression. The lesson of Tiananmen in 1989—and, after that, of the sudden collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1990–91—is that attitudes of support can be fleeting. If an authoritarian regime is perceived as weak or hesitant, citizens’ resentment of pollution, urban crowding, pressures at school, corruption, and the government’s pervasive lying can surge to the surface.
The key to the government’s treatment of Liu Xiaobo, therefore, has been risk aversion: Don’t let him get away with challenging the government’s control over what can be said in public (which he did by publishing his democracy manifesto, Charter 08, in 2008). Don’t let him read his final statement at his trial. Don’t let him attend the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo. Don’t release him from his 11-year prison sentence in spite of his cancer diagnosis. And don’t allow him to go abroad for treatment in the final days of his life. Everything must be managed by the rigid rules of political control in order to avoid sending a signal of weakness to the world—and especially to the Chinese people.
There was a time, in the early 1990s, when China made concessions, albeit minor ones, to the West on human rights issues when faced with the threat of trade or diplomatic sanctions. That was why human rights activists such as Wei Jingsheng and Wang Juntao were released from prison and allowed to come to the West. But now China is rich, and one by one the Western powers have given up on officially receiving the Dalai Lama and sponsoring resolutions critical of China at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. In the face of China’s crackdown in Hong Kong, the United Kingdom hasn't dared to speak up. In seeking to restore diplomatic ties with China, Norway essentially apologized for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu, although its concession was obscured by diplomatic jargon. The United States is the only country that issues a statement each year on June 4, on the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, but that statement has become pro forma. Beijing now simply pays no heed to foreign pressure. Its position to the world is that China respects human rights, but in its own way: the country has the rule of law, and Liu is a convicted criminal; it has a system for medical parole and medical care, and it follows its own procedures.
But Western governments must continue to press Beijing on human rights issues. China is not monolithic. It is changing, and support from outside, even if only moral, is crucially important to Chinese citizens who want freedom, dignity, and the rule of law. As Liu himself wrote in 2002, “[F]or people like me, who live inside a cowardly dictatorship, which is a prison of its own kind, every little bit of good-hearted encouragement that springs from the human nature of people who live in other places…causes us to feel gratitude and awe.”
Moreover, China’s efforts at thought control are no longer contained within its borders. By denying visas to journalists and scholars, putting pressure on universities and film festivals, censoring Hollywood film scripts, surveilling Chinese students in the West, and so on, China seeks to control what is thought and said about China in other societies. It is not doing this to promote a Chinese model, the way the Soviet Union promoted communism, but instead to protect China’s international image and prestige. But that does not make its effort less dangerous to the freedoms that we cherish in the West.
Again, Liu Xiaobo said it best. In a 2006 essay published on the Chinese-language website Ren Yu Ren Quan (Humanity and Human Rights) he warned:
When the "rise" of a large dictatorial state that commands rapidly increasing economic strength meets with no effective deterrence from outside, but only an attitude of appeasement from the international mainstream, and if the communists succeed in once again leading China down a disastrously mistaken historical road, the results will not only be another catastrophe for the Chinese people but likely also a disaster for the spread of liberal democracy in the world.… [F]ree countries must do what they can to help the world’s largest dictatorship transform itself as quickly as possible into a free and democratic country.
As China’s influence grows in this world, the West would do well to heed Liu’s words.