Dissident symbol of hope

millisphere (noun): A discrete region of around 7 million people. A sphere of interest of roughly one-thousandth of the total world population.

LIU XOAOBO (1955-2017), the poet, literary critic and Nobel Peace Prize winner, who died recently in prison, was born in Changchun, in China’s northeast, near the border with North Korea.

Changchun has a metropolitan/urban population of 7.5 million and is known as the “Detroit of China”.

Changchun’s mayor, Liu Changlong, shares the Liu family name but the real power lies with the party-secretary, Wang Junzheng. Wang is a typical communist party operative; with doctorates in social science and management.

Changchun started as a minor siding on the Russian railway line before being captured by the Japanese, who made it into the capital of their Manchurian domain. Unlike most Chinese cities, whose layout evolved from antiquity, Changchun was laid out by the Japanese in the 20th century on western lines, built to be a symbol of Japanese rule — progressive, beneficent and modern.

Liberated by the Russians in 1946, it was briefly held by the nationalist Kuomintang before falling to Mao Zedong’s army in the “siege of Changchun” when 80 per cent of the town’s residents were deliberately starved to death.

Liu Xiaobo completed a PhD on aesthetics and human freedom and rose to the top of Chinese academia, lecturing at Beijing University and abroad.

He set up and was the president (2003-07) of China’s PEN (an international writers’ organisation) and flew back from overseas to negotiate on behalf of the protesters in Tiananmen Square.

Liu Xiaobo had a moment of epiphany in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He reasoned that he could use western civilisation as a tool to critique China and to use his own creativity to critique the West.

Islamism he called extremely intolerant and bloodthirsty, and he called Chinese intellectuals’ search for rationalism and harmony in Marxist materialism and Kantian idealism “slave mentality”. All it would take for China to come right was “300 years of colonisation and to make the Dalai Lama the next leader” he said, using intellectual shock tactics.

Liu Xiaobo got himself locked up for the fourth time for drawing up Charter 08, a list of 19 changes Liu thought necessary for the future of China. These included an independent legal system, freedom of association and the elimination of a one-party state.

Liu advocated a federated republic, like the United States, with elected public officials instead of centrally-appointed functionaries like party-secretary Wang. Liu Xiaobo was arrested in 2009 for “inciting the subversion of state power”.

Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2010, while in prison, “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”.

Faced with international criticism, the Chinese government’s bottom line was that Liu was imprisoned “to make sure a society of 1.4 billion runs smoothly”. The dissident artist Ai Wei Wei (exiled in Germany) said: “Liu was imprisoned for his words.”

Liu Xiaobo said the internet was “God’s gift to the Chinese people” calling it the first medium the Chinese Communist Party could not control. The internet made traditional media more truthful by giving Chinese citizens a place to “meet while not meeting”, he reasoned.

From the centre of academia, Liu Xiaobo told the party and the Chinese people that all was not rosy-red. The “red and the black” — the government and the underworld — had become one, he said.

China had no ideology other than vulgar conspicuous consumption and ultra-superficial patriotism, full of blind self-confidence, empty boasts and pent-up hatred.

The Chinese Communist Party was a 19th century, authoritarian, violent government where corruption was pervasive, Liu concluded. “China has no freedom, therefore Tibet has no autonomy,” he once said.

In his condolences to Liu’s widow, Liu Xia, the 14th Dalai Lama, said that the people of China should honour Liu Xiaobo by carrying forward the principles he long embodied, which would lead to a more harmonious, stable and prosperous China.

Liu Xiaobo’s ashes were spread at sea, so as not to create a shrine where people might pay homage, but in his leafy hometown of Changchun, Liu Xiaobo’s ideas would have been discussed — if not in public, then on the internet.

When Fred Frederikse is not building, he is a self-directed student of geography and traveller.

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