The Globe: China’s War on Conscience

On July 13th, Liu Xiaobo, a poet and China’s first Nobel Peace Prize laureate, died. Liu did not die a free man: he died under the custody of government authorities. He had been imprisoned since Christmas Day of 2009. His crime was not violent: he did not murder, nor did he assault anyone. His crime was not theft: no one was robbed, and no one was ripped off. Liu was not a man of the black market: he did not sell drugs, or smuggle weapons. Liu’s crime was against the state: not terrorism, or espionage in the classical sense, no, his great crime was advocating for constitutional reform. In the West, this is what is allowed, and even expected, of every citizen. In China, this is a crime.

Liu was the third Nobel laureate to be awarded the prize while imprisoned and the second to die as a political prisoner (the first being Carl von Ossietzky, who died while imprisoned in Nazi Germany). He advocated for human rights and opposed single party rule in China, despite knowing the dangerous associated with advocating such ideas.

Activists like Liu are routinely targeted in China; in 2015 Amnesty International reported that China had cracked down on more than 200 lawyers and activists that year. Religion is regulated by the People’s Republic, with Human Rights watch reporting that Protestants and Muslims the most likely to be slighted by the government (the Chinese government has relived the Catholic church of some pressure in an attempt to improve relations with the Vatican.)

The purges and famines under Mao Zedong were arguably the greatest human catastrophes in history. The world will never know the true number of the fatalities in total – the Great Leap Forward, China’s effort to quickly modernize, resulted in the deaths of around 45 million in four years. In total, some estimates have Mao’s death toll at 65 million – some, even higher than that. These staggering numbers surpass the death tolls under Hitler and Stalin – but unlike Hitler and Stalin, the state designed by this mass murderer is still in existence.

After the death of Mao, China made an attempt at modernizing. The extreme communist propaganda was abandoned, restrictions on citizens were eased, and the economy opened. Now, China is the second most powerful country in the world, and many American journalists celebrate the People’s Republic. But human rights remain dire. Though attempting to modernize post-Mao, it was the “reformed” Chinas government that massacred several hundred protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989.  Despite the efforts to reform, the Chinese government continues to be a human rights violators – and the problem is only getting worse.

Xi Jinping, who many believe to be the most powerful Chinese president in the post-Mao era, has brought about a renewed effort in suppression of basic human freedoms. In an ironic show of doublespeak, Xi Jinping ordered the arrest of pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong – after which, he gave a speech in which he praised the Chinese government for bringing Hong Kong unprecedented freedom in the twenty years since the return of Hong Kong to China.

Many have ignored the human rights abuses in China in order to applaud that nation’s economic boom. The growth was phenomenal: the once isolationist China became the second most powerful economy in the world. But the dream soon died. China is now experiencing an economic downturn, and it looks like China will not do that is necessary in order to enter another era of economic growth.

The Chinese government must choose between power of their citizens or openness and economic growth; the two cannot coexist. Though China experienced in explosion in growth in the post-Mao era, the People’s Republic has seemed to have stagnated. Recent years have not been kind to Chinese economic ambitions, and it seems, despite the predictions and hopes on Sinophilies, have stagnated. The cure to such stagnation is allowing citizens the freedom and flexibility to experiment and be creative. But the latter term is the dangerous one to the Chinese government – freedom. Advocating for such an idea can be dangerous in the Center Kingdom, and with more freedom comes less power the government has over the people. And for the time being under Xi Jinping, that is unacceptable. Until then, China will stagnate and the government must foster nationalistic agenda in order to divert the attention of the Chinese populace (this is why the South China Sea issue will likely be more dangerous in the future.)

In 2013, the State department requested that the Chinese government release Liu Xiaobo, and commented on the state of human rights in the country. The Chinese government responded by stating that the 1.3 billion citizens of China had a say in the state of human rights in the country. The imprisonment and death of Liu Xiaobo contradicts that narrative. Liu did not want a violent overthrow on the government; he was a peaceful advocate for constitutional reforms. He wanted the people of China to have basic human freedoms. But the Chinese government knows that freedom begets freedom, and a slippery slope of freedom could jeopardize the authoritarian control of the Chinese people.

The Chinese government, like all authoritarian governments of ideological origins, want to have the ultimate power of their citizens: control of conscience. Liu Xiaobo led a life dedicated to combatting that vision of government, and for his crusade, he died as a political prisoner. The story of Liu Xiaobo teaches how an average person can peacefully become a symbol of hope, and that the Chinese government is not a beacon, but another example of the consequences of the suppression of conscience.