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[Chalice] Liu, Xiaobo, for Example [Chalice]

Presented January 9, 2011, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

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Remember last year when everyone in our country was talking about the Nobel Peace Prize? This was, of course, because President Obama was chosen by the Norwegian committee as the winner of the prize last year, and that set off a constant discussion for a few weeks in our country about the Nobel Peace Prize. Of course the right wing talk show personalities who are constantly on the air in Quincy and everywhere else in the country were all saying in unison that Obama didn't deserve the prize. They were debating among themselves about whether he should turn the award down since he was obviously so underserving of it, and this seemingly got all of us Americans, even the more apolitical ones, talking about Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

This year the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize was a completely different experience in our country. Our news media reported that a Chinese dissident named Liu Xiaobao had been selected for this year's Nobel Peace Prize. It then usually added that he probably wouldn't be at the award ceremony in Oslo because he was in prison. Next topic! That was really about it in terms of our cultural conversation about this year's Nobel Peace Prize. I don't think Glen Beck or Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or any of the other few who have so much to do with determining our cultural conversation took up the subject of Liu Xiaobo and so Liu Xiaobo did not live in the media echo chamber that largely is our cultural conversation, not even for a week or two. I would bet that most of us did not hear much conversation about Liu Xiaobo and the Nobel Peace Prize or talk about him much, either.

I am sure many of our fellow countrymen would say, well of course we paid a lot more attention and talked a lot more about the Nobel Peace Prize last year because it went to an American, our president, whereas this year the award went to someone we have never even heard of before who is not even an American. So why should we Americans care about it and talk about it?

I think you could make an argument that given the importance of China for our own country and for the world, even the average American should care about the fact that the Nobel Peace Prize went to not only a Chinese person but to a Chinese intellectual who just happens to be a dissident and currently in jail. China is the one country on the earth that Anericans are constantly in relation with and interacting with, even though this country seems so foreign and far away, almost like another planet. China has lent us more money than any other country, and most of our national debt is owned by China. And so many things we use and wear are made in China, so much so that by 2011 we almost take for granted that whatever it is, a sweater or a refrigerator or a toy, it is probably made in China. The world has changed so much in the last generation that we simply assume that whatever it is, it is probably made in China. I doubt very much that when my siblings and I were small that our parents ever clothed us in anything that was made in China. Now whenever Dana and I dress Sebastian we inevitably wrap him in clothes made in China, in who knows what kind of factory, by Chinese laborers of who knows what age working under who knows what conditions? Those questions always live and remain as questions, but the question of where this little sweater or this sleeper with the lion on it was made is not even a question. They were made in China. Even this Unitarian tie I am wearing, with the Unitarian chalice on it, was made in China, this tie which could then serve as an example of the fact that almost everything we use or wear is made in China. So you would think that given our country's inescapable and constant interaction with China that when a Chinese man wins the Nobel Peace Prize who just happens to also be a dissident and in prison, that that might catch the attention of a lot of Americans even if he is not an American.

Of course we here are both Americans and we are Unitarians. Our liberal religious tradition and its principles encourage us to live and to think beyond our identities as Americans, to realize that ours is only one country in this big, wide world. As Unitarians we do think of ourselves as citizens of the world and we are committed to peacemaking, peacebuilding, and peacekeeping in this world, so we do care about who wins the Nobel Peace Prize, no matter who it is.

Though we haven't heard and we haven't talked about Liu Xiaobo and the Nobel Peace Prize nearly as much as we heard and talked about Obama and the prize last year, I really think we should given our Unitarian commitment to peace and given the interesting situation that the award went to a Chinese intellectual who is in prison. And our Unitarian hearts and minds do and should go out to this long-suffering intellectual who has spent so much of his life in prison just for speaking his mind. We are, as Unitarians, all heirs of that great American Unitarian who spent a very brief time in jail, Henry David Thoreau, and who once wrote that in a society where any person is imprisoned unjustly, the only place for a just man is a prison. But our American media of all types did not pay much attention to the Nobel Peace Prize winner this year, and most of us never heard of him before he won the award and know very little about him now. So I thought it would be very much in keeping with our identity and our principles as Unitarians to discuss him this morning. Now as usual I have to say that some of you have paid a lot more attention to this than I have and know a lot more about China, Liu Xiaobo, and other Chinese intellectuals than I do.

So who is Liu Xiaobo? He is a member of the generation of Chinese intellectuals shaped and marked by the experiences of June Fourth. What is June fourth? Probably to most of us Americans, maybe even most westerners, June fourth is just a nice day in June, maybe 2 days before D-Day? Would a billion four hundred million Chinese people say back to us, or would it be just the small intellectual class say to us: What is September 11th? How could you not know the date June 4, the day of the Tianamin square massacre in 1989? Other cultures have experiences and events that are so significant to them that they are named by their date. The fact is June fourth is just a nice day in the spring for us; would this fact then be an example of the difficulty of what we are trying to do when we ask who is Liu Xiaobo and we try to understand a culture and a place so different from our own?

Liu Xiaobo was living a comfortable life teaching at Columbia University in 1989 but chose to return to China and be one of the leaders of the uprising that eventually led to June Fourth. This is how he describes the significance of June 4th for him personally: "because I had returned from the U.S. to take part in the 1989 Movement, I was thrown into prison for "the crime of counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement." I also lost my beloved lectern and could no longer publish essays or give talks in China . Merely for publishing different political views and taking part in a peaceful democracy movement, a teacher lost his lectern, a writer lost his right to publish, and a public intellectual lost the opportunity to give talks publicly. This is a tragedy, both for me personally and for a China that has already seen thirty years of Reform and Opening Up."

Liu Xiaobo was in prison for 2 years because of his involvement with the protests that led to June 4th. Even when he was released he was "subjected to year-round monitoring, kept under residential surveillance." From 96 to 99 he was sent to a Reeducation Through Labor Camp. In 2009 he was arrested again and put on trial for his activities connected with something called Charter 2008. In December of 2009 he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to prison for 11 years, which is why he could not attend last month's Nobel Prize ceremonies in Oslo.

So now Liu Xiaobo is in prison for his work with other Chinese dissidents on Charter 08. So what is Charter 08? Obviously this is an appeal by Chinese intellectuals for human and political rights for all Chinese citizens that is modeled on the appeal made to the Soviets by Czech and Slovak intellectuals like Vaclav Havel and Jan Patocko in 1977 that was called Charter 77. This is the opening paragraph of Charter 08, which was written by Liu Xiaobo and other Chinese intellectuals and signed by over 2000 Chinese citizens:

" This year is the 100th year of China's Constitution, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 30th anniversary of the birth of the Democracy Wall, and the 10th year since China signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. After experiencing a prolonged period of human rights disasters and a tortuous struggle and resistance, the awakening Chinese citizens are increasingly and more clearly recognizing that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal common values shared by all humankind, and that democracy, a republic, and constitutionalism constitute the basic structural framework of modern governance. A "modernization" bereft of these universal values and this basic political framework is a disastrous process that deprives humans of their rights, corrodes human nature, and destroys human dignity. Where will China head in the 21st century? Continue a "modernization" under this kind of authoritarian rule? Or recognize universal values, assimilate into the mainstream civilization, and build a democratic political system? This is a major decision that cannot be avoided.

The Charter then goes on to make 19 demands, including a new Constitution that guarantees human rights; a modern form of government with separation of powers; direct election of representatives; an independent judiciary; the end to the entire system of Reeducation through Labor camps; the right to form groups; freedom to assemble; freedom of expression; freedom of religion. It demands the abolishment of an educational system that indoctrinates students in an authoritarian ideology and demands the private ownership of both factories and land. It calls for the establishment of a "fair and adequate social security system that covers all citizens and ensures basic access to education, health care, retirement security, and employment." Charter 08 demands the release of all political prisoners and that the government pay reparations to the families of victims. After its list of 19 demands the Charter says: "Unfortunately, we stand today as the only country among the major nations that remains mired in authoritarian politics. Our political system continues to produce human rights disasters and social crises, thereby not only constricting China's own development but also limiting the progress of all of human civilization. This must change, truly it must. The democratization of Chinese politics can be put off no longer."

The response by the Chinese government to Charter 08 was swift. Even before it was publicly announced and published on December 10, 2008 several of the authors were taken from their homes and detained by the police and questioned about the Charter. While several of the key people associated with Charter 08 have been threatened with long prison sentences, only one person has actually been arrested, put on trial for treason, and sentenced to a long prison sentence, and that one person of course is Liu Xiaobo. Because of his involvement with the writing of Charter 08 he was convicted of treason and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Clearly, the Chinese authorities are making of Liu Xiaobo an example. With his arrest, trial, and sentencing they send a clear message to all authors and signers of Charter 08: if you continue with this foolishness and with all these demands you may well end up in prison just like Liu Xiaobo. What has happened to him is an example of what will happen to them if they don't stop these anti-China, western influenced, radical activities.

Of course Liu Xiaobo has been making an example of himself for a long time. He has written that in China as it exists today no one who stands up for himself will go unpunished and that you have to be willing to pay a great price: "A Chinese citizen who has resolved to be fully human must pay a great price in terms of the psychological preparation he must undergo. He should not hope to lead a fully human existence in his own lifetime." In explaining his own political activities and his willingness to pay the great price for them he has quoted the famous words of Lu Xun, a political dissident of an earlier era: "Burdened as a man may be with the weight of tradition, he may yet prop open the gate of darkness with his shoulder to let the children pass through to the bright, wide open spaces, to lead happy lives henceforth as rational human beings." This metaphor of holding the gate of darkness open is a constant refrain in Liu's writings. He has quite consciously made of himself an example of the intellectual and political dissident who holds the gate of darkness open for others. He is also the example of the person who has the backbone to stand tall and suffer the consequences for holding the gate of darkness open for others, and he clearly wants other Chinese citizens to follow his example and have backbone to pay the great price:

". . . the key to improving Chinese human rights is for the people of China is straighten up their own moral backbones and bravely protect their own human rights and oppose any form of suppression of human rights by authorities. As the pressure from the civilian sector grows, international pressures will be more compelling and effective, and only then China will have universal human rights."

So this Chinese intellectual with backbone, who has since 1989 done the difficult work of holding the gate of darkness open for others and has paid the great price for it, this man who has for a long time now put himself forward as an example for other Chinese citizens to follow, is now made an example of. The government of Hu Jintao, which has spoken so often of its desire for social harmony, says clearly to all people politically active in China: if you continue to press the democratic and western demands of the Charter 08 you will end up in prison like Liu Xiaobo, the example of what will happen to you.

This man who puts himself forth as an example and is now being used as an example has been put forward by the Nobel committee in Norway as an exemplary man of peace and been selected as the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. His selection certainly encourages all of us to reflect on China, this global giant, this Superpower to be, and to think about the status of human rights there now and in the future. His selection prompts us to think about those who take brave stands for human rights in contemporary China, the thousands of political activists in China of whom Liu Xiaobo is just one example.

And certainly Liu Xiaobo, through his long political activity, his suffering, and his willingness to pay the great price, is exemplary and fully worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, which he accepts for all the other political resisters in China, on their behalf, as only one example of them. But is he, Liu Xiaobo, this one Chinese dissident intellectual we now know thanks to the Nobel Prize committee, is he exemplary of dissident Chinese intellectuals both inside and outside of China today, is he a good example of these thousands of Chinese dissident intellectuals? Or, much more problematically, is Liu Xiaobo a good example of the type of extremely pro-Western Chinese dissident intellectuals certain conservative factions in the West, like the Nobel Prize selection committee, strongly prefers and prefers to put out there to the world as an example? The selection of Liu Xiaobo is not without controversy within the community of contemporary Chinese dissident intellectuals both within and outside of China.

It might surprise us to know that Liu Xiaobo, the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is so uncritical of the West that he has publicly supported even those most dubious recent adventures of the West, the Iraq War and the Afghanistan War. We have to wonder in his support of these wars how exemplary of contemporary Chinese dissident intellectuals is Liu Xiaobo? Liu Xiaobo is also well known for insisting that there can be no political freedom without private ownership of property. He is certainly the foremost Chinese intellectual who advocates private ownership and has an almost Hegelian belief in the social and political progress that ensues from private ownership of wealth. So in his enthusiasm for private ownership of wealth, how exemplary is he of contemporary Chinese dissident intellectuals? And would most other Chinese intellectual dissidents share his favorable view of western colonialism? In an interview in 1988 he was asked "Under what circumstances can China carry out a genuine historical transformation?" He answered: "300 years of colonialism.  Hong Kong became like this after one hundred years of colonialism.  China is so much larger, so obviously it will take three hundred years of colonialism.  I am still doubtful whether three hundred years of colonialism will be enough to turn China into Hong Kong today." I wonder how many contemporary Chinese dissident intellectuals would agree with Liu Xiaobo that the answer to China's problems is not a reassertion of Confucian traditions or anything else indigenous to China but is 300 years of Western colonialism? I wonder how many of his fellow Chinese dissident intellectuals would be such fans of colonialism?

Closing words:

Barack Obama said, "Mr Liu Xiaobo is far more deserving of this award than I was... [He] reminds us that human dignity also depends upon the advance of democracy, open society, and the rule of law... The values he espouses are universal, his struggle is peaceful, and he should be released as soon as possible."

©2011 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob 2011. Liu, Xiaobo, for Example, /talks/20110109.shtml (accessed July 9, 2020).

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