The untimely dissident

Liu Xiaobo showed that a politics that rises above resentment, that is without enemies, is possible

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Published:July 15, 2017 12:14 am
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Liu Xiaobo was a singular, unhoused and paradoxical figure in every respect. He is the first post-World War Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in custody. The Chinese state, whose authoritarianism he so powerfully challenged turned out to be more steely and adept in weathering the storms of dissidence and protest that have ultimately cracked so many other authoritarianisms. Yet in its symbolism, his Nobel Prize ceremony did powerfully mark a moment that exposed China’s strange vulnerability.

China’s power and footprint on the world is immense. Nineteen countries boycotted the ceremony. But the list of those 19 authoritarian countries underscored the gap between China’s power and material success on the one hand and its global normative status on the other. This is only speculation. But it is perhaps the consciousness of this gap that the Nobel ceremony highlighted that in part is fuelling a new wave of official Chinese nationalism.

Liu Xiaobo’s political career, from participation in the June 1989 protest to the drafting of Charter 08, has been well documented. He remained, first and foremost, an intellectual. As Perry Link argues, the one trait he most embodied was candour, including about himself. That was a vocation he never betrayed. The Chinese regime has tolerated a number of critical intellectuals. In many ways, Liu Xiaobo was a voice of pacifism and moderation. But the combination of radicalism in ends and moderation in means proves far more detrimental to regimes.

As an intellectual he had crossed several lines simultaneously. He advocated liberal rights. He questioned the monopoly of power the Chinese Communist party exercised. Through his work on Charter 08, he was seen as part of an organised political movement to overthrow party rule. And perhaps no less significantly, he repudiated almost every element of Chinese nationalism. His early work, which he, then, in a characteristic piece of self-criticism, repudiated, was very much marked by a tendency to use the West as a yardstick to critique China, including its past. He was consistently severe even on other Chinese dissidents for being wedded to nationalism. It was perhaps too much to expect a dissident to survive the repudiation of party, apolitical critique and nationalism simultaneously.

Scholars of Chinese politics can comment more on his role in the June movement and the subsequent trajectory of Chinese politics. But the fascination with his writings comes from a strange and unexpected sense of tragedy that marks his sensibility. Schiller had once described the Greek tragic hero as one who proves his freedom in the very loss of it. The overwhelming impression you get from Liu Xiaobo’s career is of a figure almost daring authorities to curb his freedom, as if to prove that no power, or no fate, was powerful enough to take freedom away. He is a deeply interesting thinker, both in his analysis of post-revolutionary Chinese politics, but also as a profound cultural critic. Unlike so many would-be emancipators, there is not a trace of blinkered utopianism about human nature in his thinking. His liberalism was not founded on rosy assumptions about mankind or the state of the world, it was not founded on the safety of putting aside fundamental questions.

This is very evident in the moving and revealing epilogue he wrote to his book Chinese Politics and China’s Modern Intellectuals. That epilogue is of interest for a number of reasons: His self-criticism over the way in which he uncritically embraced the West as a yardstick for China; his abiding belief in universalism, but of a much deeper and alternative kind than the West currently had to offer, his critique of the spiritual aridity of a lot of modern life, his critique of nationalism. He has a striking passage there. “The disappearing awareness of ‘original sin’ has left human life weightless and has led to another fall for humanity, leaving us unlikely to ever recover from the original fall of Adam and Eve.” Even though in that essay he uses Christian language, arguing that “as God has been secularised human civilisation has been in descent,” his general yearning for transcendence remained powerful.

This is not a liberalism founded on easy assumptions about human nature. In an interview, he once said, “I’m pessimistic about mankind in general, but my pessimism does not allow for escape. Even though I might be faced with nothing but a series of tragedies, I will still struggle, still show my opposition. This is why I like Nietzsche and dislike Schopenhauer.”

In his writings, he comes across as a Nietzschean figure in many respects. His sense of the intellectual was of an untimely figure, whose function was to “enunciate thoughts that are ahead of their time.” His sense of responsibility was quite stern: One had to take responsibility for one’s own fate, there was no point in blaming anyone else. A politics that rises above resentment, a politics without enemies and without hatred, was possible only if we stopped blaming others for our fate; that act of blaming itself betrayed our freedom. One had to embrace life in its totality and overcome it. He was a staunch defender of individuality and had deep-seated suspicion of any trace of conformity, or being absorbed in a larger mass. He was also preoccupied with being original, in a way he felt he had not been. His stringent cultural criticism had one abiding theme: He longed for the Chinese to acquire the ability to what he called “self-create.”

If the epilogue mentioned above is one short essay to read, his Nobel speech is another. It is remarkable for the moment where he thanks his wife Liu Xia, and on the love weighed down by such heavy political circumstances. But it also pointedly laid out a message for all regimes, not just China. “Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.”

In the nascent post-cultural revolution developments in China, Liu Xiaobo saw a lot of hope. But he never lost the sense that he was untimely. Xi Jinping’s clampdown has a grip on China. But Liu Xiabo knew that while politicians may write history, dissidents, poets and thinkers speak to eternity.

The writer is vice-chancellor, Ashoka University. Views expressed are personal

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  1. L
    Lovely
    Jul 17, 2017 at 12:31 pm
    This Liu seems to be Gandhi of China, pl note that Gandhism has failed to achieve anything for India. In fact it had only created more problems for India. Gandhism could not prevent Indo -Pak separation and subsequent wars with Pak and China, LTTE and naxalites. Gandhism has made India weaker. In the last 10000 yrs of human history India never attacked any country but weak India was always attacked in record number of times. During Aurangzeb rule ( even though he was anti Hindu) India reached it's peak and India achieved military and economic power[ GDP 32pc of world, now it is 1pc ] It is better if this PCM writes something about Pandits who are refugeses in almost all countries .
    Reply
    1. S
      Sitaram
      Jul 17, 2017 at 12:24 am
      Thanks for the write up, provides some idea of the intellectual Liu Xiaobo. Obviously Indian leftists and other self proclaimed liberals wont share the good opinions..
      Reply
      1. L
        Lovely
        Jul 16, 2017 at 5:03 pm
        This PBM should first go to bone chilling and windy LoC and chat with our suffering soldiers.Then he should resume poetic essays.Why he is so worried about one chinese activist?
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        1. B
          Bad Al
          Jul 16, 2017 at 8:48 pm
          Why do you even try to understand what Pratap Bhanu Mehta is saying. Your intellect and psyche is incapable of understanding it. There are thousands of Indian soldiers at the borders as are Chinese soldiers who are braving the cold in the Himalayas. Does that make one braver or more unique than the other? Would you calla chinese soldier as brave?Do they know for a certainity that they are going to die? Liu Xiabou, resisted the ills of the Chinese regime, knowing full well that he would be imprisoned and probably die. That is pure, unadulterated courage which you would never be able to comprehend because you operate in the safety of a mob. It is the person who resists the mob that is courageous, not the mob or the police battling it because he doesn't care for his safety but cares more for doing the right thing and living by his conscience. People like you are cowards who have neither a conscience nor the soul of warriors but can only bark offensive bilge from the safety of numbers.
          Reply
          1. A
            ak dev
            Jul 17, 2017 at 5:10 am
            If you are also not barking, where is your AK 4 7 or suicider bomb? May be you'll be the next hit from a bullet.
            1. L
              Lovely
              Jul 17, 2017 at 10:42 am
              Keep your failed Leftist ideology to yourself. There are many like you who are just white collored rowdies and rejoice on soldiers deaths. Your friend PBM is too small a person like you to talk about human rights.He is the same man who wept and fasted for certain anti nationals like Yaqub, Afzal Guru and Kasab when they were sentenced to death. You go and preach your sermons to Bagdadi or North Korea. . Sitting in Ivory Tower is of no use.and weeping is of NO use.
              1. B
                Bad Al
                Jul 17, 2017 at 10:29 pm
                Well Lovely aka A K Dev or whatever, Pratap Bhanu Mehta's message would be incomprehensible to you as he is solidly behind the philosophy that is against violence of any kind, especially in Politics. He has cited the life of Liu Xiabou who, unlike you, has lived and died for a message that recognizes no enemies. For you all are enemies unless they are from your Sangh Parivar or believe in your hatred filled ideolog. The fact that you mention guns and Jihadis are because your philiosophy is akin to theirs. They too believe that those not their group are enemies. Please know that that those who believe in non-violent movements like the civil disobedience movement are always unarmed and unafraid of bullets or death. They are only armed with complete faith in their convictions. But, as I have mentioned before you are cowards, as were your past leaders who have never had the courage of conviction to face the enemy (during our Freedom struglle) with nothing other than the desire for Freedom.
                1. B
                  Bad Al
                  Jul 17, 2017 at 10:33 pm
                  Lovely, if belief in non-violence is leftist ideology, well then it is a rather good ideology. Unlike you, a pacifist never rejoices on anybodys death. As for Baghdadi or autocratic N Korea, they are a reflection of you or what is our future if you become the only force.
              2. J
                Jessi
                Jul 16, 2017 at 1:51 pm
                Another AC room writer - all tall talk for others to follow
                Reply
                1. K
                  k p
                  Jul 16, 2017 at 7:32 am
                  Dear PBN, I appreciate your thought . As an ever evolving man/thinker you have shown traits of unadulterated genuineness . Regards
                  Reply
                  1. R
                    ram
                    Jul 16, 2017 at 11:54 am
                    KP, please understand that PBN has been doing the same thing: sitting in an AC room and writing essays. Essay, yes, that is it. Preaching is something everyone can do. But preaching on subjects that is difficult to handle and trying to show that he could be doing much better than others - while sitting in an AC room all the time - is UNFAIR.
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                    1. B
                      Bad Al
                      Jul 16, 2017 at 8:55 pm
                      What is Pratap Bhanu Mehta preaching? A politics without hate, which you and yours are incapable of following? Please know that Liu Xiabou was also a writer sitting in an AC room writing articles and drafting charters knowing full well that it would land him in Chinese jail where he eventually died. It is the thought and spirit of men like Liu or even Pratap Bhanu Mehta that Governments fear and their minion wish to throttle to death.
                      1. L
                        Lovely
                        Jul 17, 2017 at 10:48 am
                        Kashmiri Pandits have no human rights. ?
                        1. B
                          Bad Al
                          Jul 17, 2017 at 10:10 pm
                          Lovely, your vision too is lovely. Unlike people like you all else regard Human Rights as the Right of all human beings to live with dignity in a just society. It is not exclusive of Kashmiri Pandits or Muslims or Kashmiris.
                      2. A
                        ak dev
                        Jul 15, 2017 at 6:14 pm
                        PBM and the sickular gang was busy enjoying the loot during UPA rule when Liu Xiaobo needed their support. PBM remembers him after his death only as during UPA rule these sickulars were pets of the dynasty. Indian sickulars have all of their time to oppose Modi government but had non to support Liu Xiaobo during UPA rule..
                        Reply
                        1. B
                          Bad Al
                          Jul 16, 2017 at 9:36 pm
                          Why are you not using Liu Xiabou's death in social media groups or BJP-IT cell to paint China in a bad light? Instead of boycotting cheap Chinese trinkets and LED lights, this would have hurt them where it hurts. Yet you don't is a telling sign of what your intention really is.
                          Reply
                        2. I
                          Ivan
                          Jul 15, 2017 at 4:37 pm
                          I did not know much about the man, but after reading your article I have to find out more about the late Xiabo. Thank you for the article. Precisely for the reasons you have articulated, we have to realise that just on the say so of some a s s h o l e s, supposedly on our side we do not need to act like monkeys and fling s h i t at all and sundry as displayed here by the usual mo rons.
                          Reply
                          1. S
                            sumanth
                            Jul 15, 2017 at 3:57 pm
                            You bigoted Pratap Banu, before you comment on other worldly affairs, may we know where is your outrage on the killing of the pilgrims?? Surely you don't have sympathy as the dead are not of your kind whereas the killers represent you and your ilk? We are all well too aware how Kashmiri Pandits were ethnically cleansed in their own country. God Save India from these bigots like PBM
                            Reply
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