By Liu Xiaobo
Edited by Perry Link, Tienchi Martin-Liao, and Liu Xia
Reviewed by Julia Lovell
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright June 2012)
Before the May 2012 furor about Chen Guangcheng’s exit to the United States, Liu Xiaobo was arguably the Chinese individual who had generated most controversy between China and Western countries in recent years. After he was sentenced to eleven years’ imprisonment on Christmas Day 2009 for his key role in organising the pro-democracy Charter 08, Liu became an international cause celebre for engaged literary intellectuals: E. L. Doctorow, Don Delillo, and Edward Albee came out onto the steps of the New York Public Library on a cold New Year’s Eve to read Liu’s poetry and protest his imprisonment. When he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by a committee in Norway the following year, Liu became a global name. While the authorities in Beijing struggled to shut down discussion of Liu and his prize, his case was front-page broadsheet news in Europe, Australia, and the U.S. As the date of the award ceremony approached, China’s government strove to exercise its international clout by pressurising invited nations not to attend; Chinese imports of Norwegian salmon fell punitively. Although the defensive response of the Chinese government made an early release for Liu appear improbable, it did at least seem likely that the publicity surrounding the award would lead more people–both inside and outside China–to read about Liu and the ideas that landed him in prison.
The publication of No Enemies, No Hatred is therefore to be warmly welcomed, making Liu’s ideas accessible to Anglophone readers in a single volume of carefully selected, eloquently translated essays and poems written between the late 1980s and 2009. (Those interested primarily in Liu’s poetry can refer to a new parallel-text edition translated by Jeffrey Yang, entitled June Fourth Elegies.)
Reflecting Liu’s own political turn after 1989, the editors of No Enemies, No Hatred have focused on his more engaged writings–those that led to his most recent prison sentence and that played a significant part in his winning the Nobel Prize–rather than on his literary criticism. Unsurprisingly, the events of spring 1989 loom large throughout the collection, for these protests and their aftermath would prove to be a turning point in Liu’s career and personal life. In the years preceding 1989, he had won notoriety in China primarily for his contrarian literary and cultural views: for excoriating Chinese creative writing of both the Maoist and post-Mao eras. “Shit, the Chinese are just hopeless,” he impishly declared, condemning the new avant-garde writing of the 1980s as stagnant, repetitive, and imitative. In America when the Tiananmen protests broke out, he vowed to “do” rather than “just talk,” and flew back to Beijing to become one of the movement’s leaders. His involvement in the demonstrations led to the loss of his Beijing teaching post, two jail sentences before his 2009 trial, and a publication ban in mainland China.
The collection begins with a moving meditation on the personal tragedies of the massacre, and especially on the losses suffered by the “Tiananmen Mothers” group. Other essays range more widely, exploring the historical origins of China’s current political system, and the pre-conditions required to bring about change. Time and again, his analysis focuses on the Communist Party’s long-term monopoly of power, on the commonalities of diverse generations of Communist leaders, and on the need to develop non-violent forms of resistance through expanding civil society. He debates the politics of privatisation, calling for an overhaul of land ownership to diminish Party control. In another piece, he avers that Han China’s conflict with Tibet is not ethnic, but political: a legacy of the totalitarian system of government. Along the way, he discusses also China’s recent spike in angry patriotism, and what he sees as an unseemly obsession with winning gold medals.
Liu’s writing is always refreshing in its willingness to challenge the political no-go zones of writing in China today. By 2000, according to many critics, Chinese literary intellectuals could write about anything they wanted without fear of severe reprisal, and even with the prospect of financial gain–if they did not write directly about politics. What has arguably resulted is a culture often rich in commercial shock value–in its explicit descriptions of sex and violence, nicely characterised in Liu’s essay “The Erotic Carnival in Recent Chinese History”–but less willing to explore the systemic roots of China’s inequities. Acclaimed mainland novelists write bestselling books about Communist China that evoke the chaos of war and revolution, but that pull their punches when it comes to seeking the institutional causes of post-1949 China’s ills, and that avoid even veiled references to taboos such as the suppression of the 1989 protests. Liu, by contrast, is anxious to recover repressed political memories: to excavate events (the Anti-Rightist Movement, the famine following the Great Leap Forward, the crushing of the Democracy Wall Movement) that China’s Communist rulers have done their best to bury.
Liu’s essays also showcase an appealing humility about his own role in Chinese politics and society. Although unafraid to write polemically, he lacks the self-aggrandizing tone that sometimes seems an organic part of the beleaguered dissident persona. Repeatedly, he compares himself unfavourably to oppositional martyrs of the Maoist and post-Mao periods. Although most readers would agree that he has paid a substantial price for his critical politics, his writing is devoid of self-pity. On the contrary, it reveals an acute feeling of guilt that none of the leaders of the 1989 protests sacrificed their lives, unlike hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of ordinary citizens caught in the crossfire on June 4. A sense of the moral responsibility of the Chinese intellectual weighs heavily over the collection as a whole (he is particularly tough on May Fourth writers who effectively became government officials after 1949), but Liu also retains an awareness that there is a world outside his country of birth, lamenting that his “preoccupation with China” has made him parochial.
I might not agree with everything Liu writes, but his prose is consistently thought-provoking. Periodically, he makes sweeping assertions–for example, about the mindless complacency of contemporary Chinese youth–that he undermines elsewhere with more nuanced analysis. He dismisses the “angry young men” of the Internet as brainwashed by the Party with patriotic propaganda. Though there is certainly some truth in this characterisation, contemporary China’s most intemperate patriots can also turn their anger against their own government. Through the 2000s, one of China’s most passionate anti-Japanese nationalists was a philosophy professor called Guo Quan. In 2006, though, his feelings started to take him in a new, anti-government direction. “I am against Japan,” he wrote, “but also against the lack of democracy, freedom and human rights in Chinese society.” By 2008, he had moved on to call openly for an overhaul of the political system. That year, he was arrested under charges of state subversion (the same charge levelled against Liu Xiaobo). A couple of months before Liu’s trial, Guo was sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment. At another point, Liu writes–extraordinarily provocatively, given modern China’s preoccupation with national sovereignty, and given the controversy surrounding America and Britain’s recent foreign policy interventions in the Arab world–that “free 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.”
The essays are scattered with sharp, startling observation: about the restaurant that names its dishes after sexual acts; about the medical graduate shot in the neck while ministering to the wounded on June 3, 1989. The volume concludes with Liu’s extraordinarily serene final trial statement, which–in praising the relative humanity of his prison’s management–at times reads more like a measured report to an annual prison officers’ convention, than the self-defence of a man ruthlessly persecuted for his words and ideas. But perhaps the most eye-opening piece of information appears in the “Criminal Verdict” handed down by Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court in December 2009. The indictment lists the seven Internet articles or documents on which the accusation against Liu of state subversion rested and, where known, their number of hits: with the exception of the more widely circulated Charter 08, they come to an average of 440 per article. This statistic is a telling index of the jittery paranoia of a regime ready to bring the full force of its machinery of repression down on a man with fewer than 500 readers.
Birbeck, University of London