Liu learns to love face of democracy

LIU Xiaobo has gone to Australia ready and willing to be seduced by democracy. For Mr Liu, one of China's harshest social critics and among the most prominent dissidents of 1989, says that that year and the pro-democracy movement taught him one major lesson.

''I learned from this experience that despite the fact that I had read so much about democracy, thought about it, particularly in this movement, I know nothing about democracy.

''Democracy is a blank paper to me.'' In Australia for three months as a visiting scholar at Canberra's Australian National University, Mr Liu admits he knows of the problems such as poverty and unemployment in Western societies.

He says: ''I have read a lot of books that raise these problems. But, in fact, I would just love to be completely seduced by Western democracy, to be totally seduced to the point of being completely alienated.'' He won't allow that to happen but says it's hard to come to a country like Australia and see its true nature when most of his knowledge is based on books.

On his first day he was wide-eyed with enthusiasm - for the people, the harbour and views, even for the colour of the grass in the Botanic Gardens.

''I have been looking at all the faces, there are so many different expressions, types of people, it is really quite exciting.


''It is like everyone has contributed a bit of colour to their own lives. There is a lot of creativity in the air,'' he said.

Mr Liu was sacked as a teaching lecturer in Beijing and spent 18 months in Qincheng Prison for his role as an alleged instigator of the Tiananmen Square protests after being denounced as one of the four ''black hands''.

He plans to return to China after his three months in Australia but, speaking through an interpreter, says that if his written English were good enough he would ''leave China behind completely''.

''I really don't like that place. I don't like its culture, its architecture. There is no visual ecstasy, there is no aural excitement, there is nothing that makes you thrilled.'' But minutes later he is excited about the changes taking place there: ''In China today there are all sorts of things that are absolutely unimaginable going on. There is lots of excitement, there are challenges, it is extremely interesting.


''If this change is allowed to complete itself and China will be able to establish a democratic system, it will be the most boring place on earth.'' He admits the contradiction in his views but explains it by saying he can't work outside China, so must make the most of events inside. ''I have to find a source of inspiration for my work and writing there, so this stuff is very interesting to me. If I were living here a lot would excite me but it does not have anything to do with me.'' Writing is Mr Liu's lifeblood and he has continued to do it since his release from jail without apparent fear of the authorities. He got out in February 1991; his sentence was lighter because he prevented students turning captured arms on the troops and organising protesters' evacuation from Tiananmen Square.

''People think the Communist Party is such a terrifying thing, people on the outside. But the Communist Party can put up with so much more than they were able to tolerate a few years ago.


''The first year people followed me, the party was much concerned about me, but I did not really care one way or the other. They came looking for me sometimes in Beijing but I just did not talk to them about anything. When they sent people to see me I would say: 'Sorry, I am very busy, I am going to keep on doing what I am doing.' '' What he was doing was writing his new book, just published in Taiwan and soon out in English. The Monologue of a Survivor of The Last Days is a prison memoir but also a strident, unflinching self-criticism and criticism of the movement of which he was apart.

Even in 1989 he was a critic of the way events were handled. After the declaration of martial law in Beijing in May, 1989, it was he who urged the citizens and students to elect their own autonomous, democratic groups, turning the movement away from demonstrations to one of civil protest, as happened later in the year in Eastern Europe.

It was he who wrote the statement ''Our Suggestions'' issued on May 23 and who urged the student leaders to organise city-wide student elections. But the then-leaders, including Wu'erkaixi, rejected the plan.


Mr Liu says now that ''Our Suggestions'' and the hunger strikers' manifesto were some of the works he feels most satisfied with.

It was in 1989 too that he learned how little they knew of democracy: ''People of my generation and slightly older, the education that we received is an education of political conspiracy,'' said 37-year-old Mr Liu.

''Whether we are talking about the party or the lowest levels, the intellectual elites or the students, we all have to start from zero.'' Ironically, it was not just his writings at the time, but their later publication by the Chinese authorities by way of denouncing him that have made Liu Xiaobo something of a hero. It is a responsibility he takes seriously and one he says others prominent at the time are not facing up to.


''There are those people who after June 4 have given themselves the label of heroes. They have taken the entire responsibility for this bloody incident and given it to the Communist Party instead of taking some of the responsibility themselves,'' he said.

''Of course the greatest responsibility for the tragedy does lie at the feet of the Communist Party because it was they who gave the orders to shoot.

''But I believe that everybody who participated in the events of 1989, including myself and especially people like myself who were quite big in the movement and have reaped the benefits from it, we should all be taking on a certain element of moral responsibility for what happened.

''Now, wherever I go in China people will help me, people care about what happens to me. It is all because of this and this happens with lots of people who were involved.'' That, plus the self-knowledge he has gained, even during his time in prison, mean he has no bitterness about taking part in the protest movement.

Mr Liu was at Harvard in early 1989 during which time he wrote devastating critiques of both the Chinese Government and Chinese intellectuals. He went home in April, 1989, believing he should take part in the protests, not just write about them from a safe distance.

He says the time in the US taught him an important lesson about China that he believes Australia will reinforce: ''I learned democracy was not just a political system, but a way of life. Like all other Chinese, the first thing I have to learn is that thebasis of democracy is respect for other people.

''This view that everyone is equal is something that Chinese people need to absorb most.'' Mr Liu says that during his three months in Australia he will be writing a book based on a study he did in Beijing before he left: ''It is a very large-scale investigation, interviews on popular culture in the post-revolutionary period.

''When I was in China I was like a frog in a well. You can only see the limited view that you have and you rarely care about broad issues of humanity the way, for example, Western religion, that says everyone is equal before God.'' Liu Xiaobo is a thin, intense, bespectacled man who describes himself as a perpetual loner and nobody's lackey. Friends say he is disliked by some for his foul language, his uncouth habits and his superciliousness, but has never shrunk from criticising himself or others.

Asked whether he must be circumspect in Australia because he is returning to China, he said: ''I have not worried about that since the time I was released. I am a free citizen and whatever I want to say, I will say.''