A Hero and a Martyr, Remembering Liu Xiaobo

In the debate over the compatibility of democracy and Asian values that Kim Dae-jung had with Lee Kuan Yew two decades ago, Kim said that his fundamental reason for optimism about the prospect for democracy in Asia was “the increasing awareness of the importance of democracy and human rights among Asians themselves.”  Nothing demonstrates more powerfully the depth of this commitment to democratic values than the life and courageous struggle of Liu Xiaobo, who in the years following the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 became the world’s most eloquent and impassioned voice for democracy and human freedom. 

Liu understood the enormity of the challenge he faced as a dissident democrat defying the power of the authoritarian Chinese state.  He mourned the victims of the Tiananmen crackdown, which he said was “the major turning point” in his life; and he realized that rising Chinese power could blot out their legacy.  But he remained hopeful about the prospect for democracy in China because he saw the economic, ideological, and political pillars of Chinese totalitarianism eroding under the impact of the forces of modernization and technological change.  He believed that such forces were changing not just the institutions of China but also the consciousness of the people. 

In his famous essay “To Change a Regime by Changing a Society,” published in 2006, Liu wrote that dissidents could no longer be cowed into submission by the repressive regime.  “Political persecution can still bring economic loss and the loss of personal freedom, but it can no longer destroy a person’s reputation or turn a person into a political leper.  Indeed, today it can have the opposite effect—not merely failing to destroy one’s dignity or spirit but actually helping a person to achieve spiritual wholeness, and even, in the view of others, to rise to the status of ‘conscience of the people’ or ‘hero of truth.’” 

This essay, with its reference in the title to changing the regime, was used by the Chinese authorities at Liu’s trial as evidence of his guilt of “the crime of inciting subversion of state power.”  The regime also charged that he was the lead author and organizer of Charter 08, a manifesto for democracy and constitutional government that was signed at great personal risk by more than 10,000 Chinese citizens. But far from destroying him, his imprisonment only increased his stature and made him into the “conscience of the people,” as he had said that it would.  As a result, he also became renowned internationally and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2010.   

At the Nobel ceremony, which neither Liu nor his wife Liu Xia was permitted to attend, the Swedish actress Liv Ullmann read Liu’s closing statement at his trial, in which he said, “China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme.”  In that statement, Liu also called for an end to “the enemy mentality of the regime” that “poisons” the spirit of the nation, “incite[s] cruel mortal struggles,” destroys the society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinders the country’s progress toward freedom and democracy. 

This statement was not the first time that Liu had pointed to the danger of regime-fomented enmity.  He had continuously called for an end to hatred and “class-struggle thinking,” most notably in “The June 2nd Hunger Strike Declaration” that he authored in Tiananmen Square less than two days before the regime crushed the nonviolent uprising with massive force.  The poisonous culture created by the regime’s stoking of such enmity, he believed, prevented his fellow countrymen from becoming engaged and responsible citizens.  

Liu responded by trying to “dispel hatred with love.”  But he was far from a naïve or quixotic idealist.  He saw a terrible danger coming for both China and the world if China failed to democratize and continued to rise economically and militarily as a dictatorship.  He worried that “the great powers in human history that rose as dictatorships —…Hitler’s Germany, the Meiji Emperor’s Japan, and Stalin’s Soviet Union – all eventually collapsed, and in doing so brought disaster to human civilization.”   And he warned that “if the Communists succeed in…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.”  He believed, therefore, that it was in the vital interest of all democratic countries and freedom-loving people to rescue “the world’s largest hostage population from enslavement.”

It’s been more than a decade since Liu warned of the dangers China posed to liberal democracy and global security if its rise as a powerful militaristic dictatorship continued. Virtually no one in the West heeded Liu’s warning because the overwhelmingly dominant view at the time was that China’s rise was something to be welcomed and not feared.  U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick voiced the conventional wisdom when he said that bringing China into the rules-based liberal international order would make it a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system, and that economic growth would inexorably liberalize China by producing a middle class that would demand political participation and reform. 

But instead of promoting liberalization, China’s dramatic economic growth has had the opposite effect by reinforcing the regime’s belief in the legitimacy and superiority of its state-driven economic model.  In addition, the wealth that China has amassed as a result of its economic growth has enabled it to play a much more assertive role internationally, completely upending the delusionary view that China’s growth would be good for democracy and the rules-based global order.  Reflecting the disillusionment of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment, former State Department Asia hand Kurt Campbell recently observed that “the liberal international order has failed to lure or bind China as powerfully as expected.  China has instead pursued its own course, belying a range of American expectations in the process.”  Following Xi Jinping’s announcement last February that the Chinese constitution would be changed to allow him to remain as president indefinitely, The Economist magazine bluntly stated, “The West’s 25-year bet on China has failed.”

Liu Xiaobo was in prison until his death in 2017, and so his voice was silenced during his final years when China’s power grew and the scales fell from the eyes of Western leaders and policy-makers.  Though he could not comment on the consequences of China’s rise during these years, they were anticipated in his earlier writings and include the following:

  • The restoration under Xi Jinping of Mao-like rule, which enables Xi to control all the levers of power in the state and the Communist Party, including the military and the police.
  • The establishment of a hostile and repressive surveillance state that uses digital imaging, facial recognition technology, and unprecedented amounts of data about people’s financial and social interactions to monitor the behavior of all individuals and to regulate their access to economic and social benefits according to their degree of loyalty to the state.
  • China’s $1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), seven times larger than the Marshall Plan in postwar Europe, which uses massive infrastructure development in 64 countries to advance Chinese military and geopolitical goals, including securing access to strategic resources, gaining control by Chinese state-owned enterprises of strategic ports and terminals, using partnerships with governments and national media to export Chinese techniques of state surveillance and to disseminate Chinese media content, and establishing a system of dispute resolution for BRI projects that promotes Chinese rules as an alternative to Western legal norms.
  • The continued fortification of reefs in the disputed Spratly Islands, in defiance of a ruling by an international tribunal, leading Admiral Philip Davidson of the U.S. Pacific Command to say, “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”
  • Its comprehensive economic and military buildup, which a recent Pentagon study (mentioned in an article by David Ignatius entitled “China’s Plan to Rule the World”) described as “perhaps the most ambitious grand strategy undertaken by a single nation-state in modern times.”
  • In sum, China’s emergence as a political, military, and ideological rival of the West, using economic and military hard power alongside its sharp-power information tools that are being combined and leveraged to promote its model of authoritarian development as an alternative to democracy -- “a new option for other countries” —as Xi Jinping declared at the 19th Party Congress.

China’s continued rise, along with Xi’s radical centralization of power, are not inexorable developments.  They could encounter setbacks and complications in the period ahead.  As Susan Shirk noted in her recent article in the Journal of Democracy, “The Return to Personalistic Rule,” under Xi Jinping “the more autocratically a leader behaves, the more likely other politicians are to try to bring him down.”  A power play of this magnitude, therefore, may spark elite conflict and resistance from rival leaders, which could lead to a return to collective leadership and even to an unanticipated political opening for reform. 

In addition, China’s push for global leadership has already produced a backlash that The Economist has called “the starkest reversal in modern geopolitics.”  This has led to a proliferation of proposals and initiatives in the United States and other countries to counter and contain China’s expansionism.  These range from supporting efforts by Asian countries and Australia to balance China militarily in the South China Sea and other potential conflict zones, to calls for a policy of “reciprocity” that would apply a single standard to dealings with China—from screening its investments in the U.S. in order to block access to Chinese companies —access that is denied to U.S. companies in China—to monitoring cultural programs like Confucius Institutes to ensure that they are not used as sharp-power tools of political influence and insisting that America cultural centers have equal access to Chinese universities.

So far the response to China as a rising authoritarian power has been reactive and defensive.  The focus, not surprisingly, has been on the security threat posed by assertive Chinese actions in a growing number of potential conflicts zones, as well as on the political challenge that China presents, which includes its use of economic leverage and sharp power to demand compliance with its position on issues like Tibet and Taiwan.  What is not being addressed, though, is the issue that Liu Xiaobo considered to be the central and decisive question—whether China could take a different and more democratic path than the current obsession with concentrating dictatorial control at home and pursuing geopolitical hegemony abroad.

Right now, it’s highly unlikely that China will reverse its current path.  Under Xi Jinping, Beijing has stepped up repression dramatically, cracking down on civil society activists and online bloggers and journalists; arresting hundreds of human rights lawyers; passing new laws that suppress online freedom of expression and subject international NGOs to unprecedented control by the Chinese security services; severely increasing repression over the Uyghur and Tibetan minorities; and tightening control over basic freedoms in Hong Kong, including the forcible “disappearance” of five employees of an independent bookstore.

But such repression, while intended to strengthen the hand of the central government, actually demonstrates the deep insecurity of the Chinese regime, which considers any independent voice to be a threat to its power and to the social order itself.  Were the regime confident of its power and legitimacy, it wouldn’t need to silence a dissident writer like Liu Xiaobo (or his widow Liu Xia), eliminate a human-rights lawyer like Li Baiguang, or expunge any memory of the Tiananmen uprising in 1989. 

Nothing more clearly exposes the regime’s deep insecurity than a new law that criminalizes criticism of the “heroes and martyrs” of China’s communist past.  In effect, the law is an attempt to whitewash such Maoist disasters as the Great Leap Forward, which led to massive famine and tens of millions of deaths, as well as the Cultural Revolution, a “spiritual holocaust” during which China descended into chaos, mass violence (over one million people were killed and tens of millions were tortured and humiliated), and ideological madness. 

Perry Link has noted that the “Heroes and Martyrs Protection Act” has nothing to do with protecting history “and everything to do with maintaining the party’s power and control today."  He said that Liu Xiaobo drew inspiration from historical figures such as Lin Zhao, Yu Luoke, and Zhang Zhixin, all of whom were executed during the Cultural Revolution “for expressing truths the party did not want to hear.  The fact that the present law will have nothing to do with protecting the reputations of those [true] martyrs says all one needs to know about the purpose of the law.”  Xi has campaigned against any honest accounting of these horrors, calling it an indulgence in “historical nihilism” that would damage the legitimacy of the Communist Party.  The Party, in other words, requires the denial of truth and the rewriting of history in order to survive. 

This is not a strategy that can work in the long run since it depends upon the Chinese regime’s ability to impose its version of the truth, from its subjects at home to foreign business leaders, government officials, and academics.  Legitimacy cannot be achieved through coercion.  It requires the capacity to project ideas and values that are persuasive and attract genuine loyalty.  The disclosure of the famous Document No. 9 revealed that the regime has declared war on so-called Western ideas such as universal values, civil society, and free media, which it sees as a threat to the Communist Party’s social foundation.  But if it wants to suppress such ideas, it will need alternative ideas with which to replace them.  The problem is that it has no ideas, which is why it has stoked nationalism to fill the void left by the death of communist ideology.  

David Shambaugh has written, “Until China develops values that appeal universally, it will lack one of the core features of global leadership.”  Until then, it will continue to be a global bully, forcibly trying to impose its will on a cowed but disbelieving international community.  And it will try to maintain absolute control internally, fearful that the whole system will unravel the moment that it loosens its iron grip.

Liu Xiaobo saw the vulnerabilities of such a system, which is why he wrote that “even the most vicious tyranny will be short-lived” the moment that people decide to oppose it “to the bitter end.” There are people in China who have such determination, and their numbers could grow if the alarm over China’s belligerence persuades the world’s democracies that defending democrats in China is consistent not just with our values but with our interests as well.  This was Liu’s central message—that our freedom is linked to his and, by extension, to freedom in China.  In remembering Liu Xiaobo, we are affirming and defending our common future.


Carl Gershman is the President of the National Endowment for Democracy. 

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