Liu Xiaobo

Feared, not revered

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 January, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 January, 2010, 12:00am

In the 1930s, the book Red Star over China, by the American writer Edgar Snow, did much to win Western sympathy and support for the Chinese communist movement and its leader, Mao Zedong, at a time when the US backed the government of president Chiang Kai-shek.

Snow became a legendary figure in China. Last month, to mark the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic, he was proclaimed one of China's top 10 international friends.

During his last visit to China, Snow was given the honour of standing next to Mao on October 1, 1970, atop the Tiananmen rostrum to view National Day festivities. On Mao's other side was Snow's wife, Lois Wheeler. When Snow became critically ill in 1972, the Chinese government sent doctors to care for him in Geneva.

Last Friday, The New York Times published a letter to the editor from Switzerland under the headline 'Stifling dissent in China'.

It said: 'Sentencing Liu Xiaobo, a signer of Charter 08, to 11 more years in prison under the trumped-up charges of 'inciting subversion of state power' ... is another black mark for China ... Chinese leaders remain oblivious to the internationally recognised principle of responsible leadership chosen freely by a country's people and continue to ignore the basic right to freedom of expression through open discussion.'

The letter was signed Lois Wheeler Snow, who is now 88.

China's decision to silence Liu, who took part in the drafting of Charter 08, a document that advocates human rights and democratic government, is proving costly in terms of the country's moral standing at a time when it is basking in international admiration of its economic success.

The condemnation by the widow of a man so widely admired in China would no doubt cause some Chinese to question the policies of their government. But its unlikely that the Communist Party would allow her views to become known.

On Saturday, The Washington Post published in its commentary section a letter to President Hu Jintao written by Vaclav Havel, who was the last president of Czechoslovakia, from 1989 to 1992 after the fall of communism in eastern Europe, and then the first president of the Czech Republic, until 2003. In the 1970s, Havel, then a dissident, co-authored Charter 77, which chastised Prague for failing to implement human rights provisions of international documents it had signed. Havel went to the Chinese embassy in Prague to deliver the letter, also signed by two associates. However, Chinese officials refused to open the door.

The letter to Hu said the trial in December was 'the result of a political order for which you carry ultimate political responsibility' and said the 'harsh sentence meted out to a respected, well-known and prominent citizen of your country merely for thinking and speaking critically about various political and social issues was chiefly meant as a stern warning to others not to follow his path'.

Havel and the two other signatories, writer Pavel Landovsky and Vaclav Maly, Bishop of Prague, recalled that, in 1977, they had been 'arrested by the police in our own country, then a one-party communist state, for 'committing' exactly the same 'crime'.'

'There is nothing subversive to state security,' the letter declared, 'when intellectuals, artists, writers and academics exercise their core vocation: to think, rethink, ask questions, criticise, act creatively, and try to initiate open dialogue. On the contrary, the present and future well-being of a society is undermined when governments suppress intellectual debate.' It called on the Chinese government 'to secure a fair and genuinely open trial for Liu Xiaobo when the court hears his appeal'.

The Chinese government, which refused to accept the letter in the first place, will no doubt turn a deaf ear to the plea. China seems to feel that it can safely disregard international opinion now that it has become one of the world's leading economic powers. But, it needs to learn that might does not make right.

And while its rise may cause it to be feared, it will not cause it to be liked.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator