Liu Xiaobo’s death

Liu Xia holds a portrait of Liu Xiaobo during his funeral . AP: Shenyang Municipal Information Office

Liu Xia holds a portrait of Liu Xiaobo during his funeral. AP: Shenyang Municipal Information Office

The propaganda struggle over Liu Xiaobo’s demise was a sad but fascinating spectacle. The PRC’s distorted video broadcast of his medical examination was a ghoulish sight as well as a horrible invasion of his privacy and violation of arrangements made with the German government. The truncated, swift and restricted funeral arrangements were a farce.

Yet, as some observers have come to recognize, if only as inadequate consolation, the extraordinary circumstances of this Nobel laureate’s departure may prove his greatest contribution to the cause of free speech he so gallantly served. Liu’s final tragedy has alerted the world, to an extent even greater than did the empty chair in Stockholm, to the Chinese Communist Party’s inhumane oppression.

Despite the enormous international pressures on Xi Jinping, China’s ruthless leader insisted on Liu’s last pound of flesh. Xi was bent on heartlessly punishing Liu to the end for following the admonition of Xi’s own father, a famous first generation Communist leader who, after suffering 16 years in political exile, urged the Party to allow freedom of speech not only among the elite but also for all Chinese people. Today in China such advice constitutes “incitement to subversion.”

In terms of its immediate impact, Liu’s death has energized human rights activists outside China, at least for a time. Unfortunately, however, I don’t think his death will have a major favorable impact on human rights activities inside China, since he had already been silenced for a long time and most people in China don’t know about him, at least in a positive way. To the extent people do know about him and care, many will be further intimidated by his fate, while some others may be inspired to enter the human rights field, if only cautiously.

On the surface the human rights/political reform movement in China is in dreadful shape. It obviously has got this way because of extraordinary massive, ruthless and efficient repression that has understandably deterred the many liberal elements in Chinese society and government. Yet, quietly, quite a lot of professional legal reforms are still under way. They do not affect the many political prosecutions that take place or the unauthorized, illegal restrictions that are indefinitely imposed on human rights activists, outside the formal legal system, by police and their thugs. But they gradually improve procedures in ordinary criminal cases and lay the groundwork for more comprehensive reforms to occur when the political climate becomes less repressive, as it may well after Xi Jinping’s eventual departure from office.

Human rights issues will not disappear from the media with Liu. The cases of his wife Liu Xia and just released from formal prison Xu Zhiyong will highlight what I call NRR – “Non-Release ‘Release’”, another, lesser-known but insidious form of oppression. These are home prisons of an indefinite duration, and they restrict not only the activists but also their families, relatives and friends. Usually there is no legal authority for such repression. Ask Cheng Guangcheng, Gao Zhisheng, Li Heping and Li Chunfu, for example, or their families! There are too many examples.

When Liu Xiaobo was treated in the hospital, Chancellor Angela Merkel called upon the Chinese government in vain to release him to go abroad for his final moments “as a signal of humanity”. Can we expect foreign governments to do more? Will they be more effective? Many governments feel that their human rights protests against Beijing will have no positive impact on the PRC and will have a negative impact on other aspects of their relations with China. To the extent they do protest, it is often more a response to their own citizens’ pressure for action than to genuine concern for human rights, and their domestic business constituents usually have more clout than their human rights community. Compassion fatigue and realistic hopelessness about the Xi Jinping regime are also factors. 

Yet those of us on the outside have to persist in our efforts to directly influence developments in China and to put pressure on our own governments not only to influence China but also improve their own human rights performance.

 

Liu Xiaobo’s passing and China’s human rights violations

Foreign governments have the right to complain about the People’s Republic of China’s denial of internationally-guaranteed human rights to the Chinese people. The PRC, for example, in the exercise of its vaunted sovereignty, chose to limit its sovereignty by ratifying the UN Convention against Torture that spells out in detail all the kinds of conduct that constitute internationally forbidden torture, mental as well as physical. The PRC’s mistreatment of its many political dissidents plainly violates this Convention in many respects.

The case of Liu Xiaobo’s widow, Ms. Liu Xia, is an obvious example of the PRC subjecting to forbidden torture someone who has not even been accused of a crime or even legally detained. As to her husband, we don’t know the facts of his final imprisonment and the extent to which he was denied adequate medical treatment but it is widely suspected that the authorities at least demonstrated indifference to his increasingly dangerous medical condition and that its mistreatment of Liu Xiaobo could well be deemed a violation of the Convention against Torture.

Of course, Liu Xiaobo’s criminal conviction was based on the regime’s suppression of his freedom of speech and the violations of criminal justice protections that marked his prosecution. Both of these categories of rights are protected by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the PRC has signed but not yet ratified. The PRC has, however, ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which requires it to respect the freedoms of expression denied to Liu Xiaobo. It is nonsense for the PRC, on the one hand, to commit itself to international rights protections in the exercise of its sovereignty and then, on the other, to say that holding it to such commitments is a violation of its sovereignty.

Not only should foreign governments condemn China for its violations of human rights that led to Liu Xiaobo’s imprisonment and death, but they should also press the Chinese government to give Liu Xia, who has been put under severe illegal house arrest for the past seven years, the option to leave China. If she chooses to remain in China, the Chinese government should, in accordance with its international human rights obligations, immediately lift all the oppressive conditions that she has suffered.

However, the chance that Liu Xia will be allowed to leave China or have genuine freedom at home in the near future may be slim. The Chinese regime was obviously extremely reluctant to release Liu Xiabo, whether at home or abroad, because of understandable fear of what he would choose as his final words. At home, if he had been allowed to leave the hospital, he would have been kept under strict guard to prevent media contacts, as so many other human rights victims currently are. This is what I call “Non-release ‘release’”.  Release abroad would have permitted him to indict the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship before the world, unless the Party insisted on keeping Liu Xia and her brother as hostages.

The PRC is also very sensitive about being seen to allow what it calls “foreign interference with its judicial sovereignty”. As noted above, however, this is a spurious argument in those cases where it has exercised its sovereignty to commit itself to the international standards it has violated.

While it is easy to conclude, given the current relentless repression, that the Chinese Communist Party cares little about what the world thinks of it, I believe that it actually cares desperately, even today. That’s one of the reasons why it confined Liu Xiaobo, despite the great “soft power” cost in doing so. Allowing him to be free would have been even more costly in ”soft power” terms because of his withering criticism. Moreover, it would have allowed him to “subvert” its dictatorship by challenging it on democratic grounds before the Chinese public.

Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia, cartoon by  Badiucao

Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia, cartoon by Badiucao

Liu Xiaobo’s fate: the painful choice of exile or extermination

Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia at a hospital in China; source: Associated Press

Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia at a hospital in China; source: Associated Press

The world has been watching whether Chinese Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who has been diagnosed with last-stage liver cancer, will regain some final moments of freedom in order to receive adequate medical treatment abroad. His friend, Liao Yiwu, wrote a moving tribute (Chinese here) during the weekend, stressing Liu’s wish to leave China with his wife and brother-in-law for medical treatment, preferably in Germany with the U.S. as another possible destination.

Liao Yiwu himself is a splendid writer and also a poet. He is alive and active today because, after enduring harsh punishment in China, he made the decision to go into exile in Germany and, like the Chinese who assembled in Washington, DC and other places outside the Mainland July 9th to mark the second anniversary of the start of Xi Jinping’s continuing 709 purge of human rights advocates, he is free to express his views.

The dissimilar fates of Liao and Liu Xiaobo illustrate the painful choice (if they have that choice) that has always confronted civil libertarians from dictatorial regimes – exile or extermination. Ninoy Aquino, Kim Dae-jung, Annette Lu, Ai Weiwei , Chen Guangcheng and so many others have earned our sympathy and support, whatever their ultimate decision.

Many foreign scholars have agonized with and advised those who have had to confront this decision. The 1979 prosecution of Annette Lu in Taiwan under the KMT caused me to write a very long piece in the Wall St Journal, Asia – “A Taiwan Dissident’s Long Road to Prison” – describing the dilemma in particular of foreign students who choose to strengthen their human rights commitments by studying in democratic countries and then face the dilemma of whether and when to return home to dangerous dictatorships.

When on July 15 legal scholar/activist Xu Zhiyong is released from Chinese prison, I hope he will have the choice whether to stay in China or go abroad for a time. It is far more likely that Xi Jinping will decide to continue Xu’s confinement by other means via what should be called “the Non-Release Release” (NRR) that currently keeps so many supposedly “free” ex-human rights prisoners and their families effectively under political restraints.

On a lighter note, Liao Yiwu’s message reminds me of a passionate lecture he gave in Chinese to a packed house at the New School in NY about five years ago during his first American visit. The first questioner asked him: “What do you think of the U.S,?” Liao answered: “ I’ve only been here four days and I’ve spent them all in Flushing.” Undeterred, the questioner said: “So what do you think of Flushing?” Liao flashed a smile and responded: “That’s easy. Flushing is China without Communism!”