by Chase Padusniak
Published by Harvard University Press, 2012 | 366 pages
Liu Xiaobo, arguably the leading human rights activist in China, was sentenced in 2009 to eleven years in prison, plus the deprivation of political rights for two years. The charges against him: that he “took advantage of the Internet…to do slander and to incite others to overthrow state power and socialist system in our country” and to bring about “subversion of state power.” In 2010 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but, due to his incarceration could not attend the ceremony. Instead, an empty chair was placed on the stage. Actress Liv Ullman read the statement Xiaobo had prepared for his 2009 trial: “I still want to say to this regime, which is depriving me of my freedom, that I stand by the convictions I expressed in my ‘June Second Hunger Strike Declaration’ twenty years ago ‑ I have no enemies and no hatred.” Xiaobo remains incarcerated in a Beijing prison.
No Enemies, No Hatred, edited by Perry Link, Tienchi Martin-Liao, and Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, gathers in one place a collection of short essays and poems written by Xiaobo over the span of two decades, from the early 1990’s to his incarceration in 2009. The period under discussion is the wake of Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution, and more specifically that of China’s emergence as global superpower following the death of Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang in 1989 and the student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
Xiaobo’s is a determined critique. He sees in the current Chinese political landscape a proliferation of censorship, corruption, human rights violations. A good portion of the essays here take the form of the inventory, with China’s crimes and moral offenses catalogued at great length. Ever conscious of the real possibility of reform, Xiaobo speaks directly to the Chinese government and populace – his tone always restrained, avoiding hyperbole and sarcasm. Throughout he advocates a form of progressive democracy and the cessation of communist single-party rule in China.
Social justice and reform are, arguably, Xiaobo’s top concerns, and the essays gathered in Part I (“Politics With Chinese Characteristics”) deal predominantly with the fact that social reform was abandoned during China’s rapid economic growth during the past 20 years. This section opens with a look at unedited transcripts of the mothers of Tiananmen massacre, and includes an attack on Mao’s dictatorship, a manifesto for Chinese farmers, current trends of cynicism in China’s youth, and the dangers of China’s nationalism, among other topics.
In Part II (“Culture and Society”) Xiaobo critiques current Chinese literary trends in print and online, which, he believes, mirror the general disintegration of China’s moral fiber. His focus, as always, is on China’s future transition from dictatorship to democracy. One of the more interesting essays addresses “egao,” a form of satire that has spread over the Internet in China. According to Xiaobo, egao serves as an anonymous outlet for critiquing tradition and authority. For Xiaobo, political humor is “an important and widespread form of popular resistance in post-totalitarian society.”
Though Xiaobo’s focus is nearly always specific to China, the essays in part III (“China and the World”) focus on China’s presence in relation to the global stage. Here the concern is with how rapid economic growth in China “encourage extravagance in consumerism and frivolity in culture.” The essay “The Communist Party’s ‘Olympic Gold Medal Syndrome’” addresses the superficial pride of China’s excessive investments in the training of their Olympic athletes, and shows, Xiaobo writes, “the defensive mentality, the aberrant vanity, of an insecure country that ‘cannot afford to lose.’” China’s focus on nationalism, he suggests, creates a smoke screen that obscures the serious social reforms needed in China. The cost is the loss of human dignity.
Part IV (“Documents”) is an assortment of historical records from Xiaobo’s trial and work as a human rights advocate, including a declaration of a three-day hunger strike he and three others completed in 1989 at Tiananmen Square; “Charter 08,” a human rights manifesto drafted in the fall of 2008 by the Chinese Human Rights Defenders; and the text he read at his own trial, his “Final Statement,” entitled “I Have No Enemies.” As opposed to the abstraction of the previous essays, these documents ground the work as a whole in the historical example of Xiaobo’s activism.
No Enemies, No Hatred is both an ending and a new beginning, the historical record of one man’s life and a cri de Coeur for a better future. In the Foreword of “Charter 08,” Xiaobo asks: “Where is China headed in the 21st century?” Though No Enemies, No Hatred is ostensibly a historical work focused on the previous fifty years, this question can nevertheless be understood as the crux around which the entire collection revolves; as in all truly political works, thorough historical engagement is here deployed in the service of a resolutely presentist agenda. No Enemies, No Hatred stands as both the living testimony of a man who perseveres in his beliefs even in the face of imprisonment, and a clarion call that “the core of the human moral sense lies in the recognition of the dignity of persons…the natural source of humankind’s sense of justice,” while the mere fact of Xiaobo’s pro-Democratic message functions as a reminder to its Western audience of the stark reality of cultural perspective.
Patrick Haas is a freelance writer and editor in South Korea.