Chinese must help themselves in preserving the legacy of Liu Xiaobo

Robert Delaney says rights activists pushing the cause of Liu and his wife must focus their efforts on convincing their compatriots of the need for change, rather than depend on US support

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 July, 2017, 12:22pm
UPDATED : Monday, 24 July, 2017, 10:39pm

In the aftermath of Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo’s ( 劉曉波 ) death, and amid concern over the whereabouts and well-being of his wife, Liu Xia, advocates for their cause are turning to the US for support.

“The dearth of foreign leaders willing to criticise Mr Xi publicly has added to a sense of despair and isolation among activists,” a recent New York Times report said. “Many say they feel abandoned by the United States in particular, and they worry that President Trump will prioritise trade with China at the expense of human rights.”

It’s true the response from Washington hasn’t been full-throated. The White House issued a standard eulogistic statement and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Beijing to release Liu Xia. Given all we know about President Donald Trump, Washington’s support for Liu Xia may end there.

Silence amplifies friends’ fears about the fate of Nobel laureate’s widow Liu Xia

But don’t blame the US. The causes of people like Liu Xiaobo are antithetical to China’s contemporary cultural orientation. Under the Communist Party, the vast majority of mainland Chinese have been scrambling to make up for lost decades of economic development, from state-owned giants to individual entrepreneurs. This economic urgency is undergirded by China’s Confucian roots, which prioritise order, cohesion and respect for authority. Indeed, the party has worked in recent years to merge Confucian ideals with its doctrine.

Anyone invested in Liu Xiaobo’s cause, Western or Chinese, should know this, and also be familiar with the chasm between present-day Chinese culture and Liu’s ideals.

Trump, Macron avoid criticism of China after death of Liu Xiaobo

There have been countless attempts by reformers in China over the past two centuries to bring more democratic principles into China’s government. Experiments with more pluralistic forms of governance – during the Qing Dynasty, the Republican period, or since 1949 – have always reverted to autocratic means. If these efforts have taught us anything, it is that the two cultural orientations are incommensurable.

Watch: Liu Xia reads poems in a secret video

This is not to suggest that Chinese are incapable of understanding and appreciating the value of the democratisation of political rights. Liu himself followed a long line of dissidents who tried to bring equal political rights to China. P. C. Chang (Zhang Pengchun), for example, co-authored the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the Nationalists’ regime in mainland China crumbled. As noted China scholar John Pomfret points out in his recent book, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: “Like many of China’s towering liberals, [Chang] and his work to fuse the traditions of East and West have been forgotten on mainland China.”

Those who believe China needs more political rights must look to their compatriots, and not Washington. Having consolidated his base, President Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) and China’s senior leaders can simply ignore or deflect any entreaties about Liu Xia and any other Chinese dissidents erased from public view.

Why Liu Xiaobo is the role model that a modern China sorely needs

No one can say when, or if, the larger Chinese community will push for better treatment of dissidents. Greater numbers of mainland Chinese are parking their wealth in the US and trying to get their children into US high schools and universities, possibly an indication that they are more inclined to support political reform at home. Cynics might argue that environmental pollution and corruption are fueling the exodus among Chinese with the resources, not political yearnings.

However, if enough of them come to the conclusion that discordant, activist voices play a key role in addressing the problems they are fleeing, they might become more vocal in support of people like Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia.

Robert Delaney is a US correspondent for the Post based in New York