Yaxue Cao, July 16, 2017
It was heartbreaking and depressing recently to watch the community of Chinese activists and dissidents, especially friends of Liu Xiaobo, congregating on WhatsApp and frantically thinking of ways to save him. The appeals and statements, and the calls for signatures from a dozen or so sources, sounded like echoes bouncing off the walls that Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia were trapped behind. For China’s opposition movement, the passing of Liu Xiaobo feels like the climax of a continuous and ruthless campaign of elimination. Now, people are left to pick up the pieces, and they will need time.
I have been pointing out that over the past few years, starting from the now benign-looking crackdown on the New Citizens Movement in 2013, the Party has been carrying out a what I call “targeted elimination” of key activists, dissidents, and intellectuals across the country. In Guangdong, they imprisoned Guo Feixiong, Tang Jingling, and those pesky grassroots street demonstrators. In Wuhan, they put a few key activists in jail; the same was done in Suzhou and Shenzhen. In Xinyu, Jiangxi, they jailed Liu Ping and her small cohort. In Zhengzhou, a nascent, bustling citizen network used to gather frequently — but no more. In Beijing, Xu Zhiyong and key activists in the New Citizens Movement were sentenced, and prominent lawyers such as Pu Zhiqiang, as well as influential intellectuals, have been taken out one way or the other. The Sakharov laureate Hu Jia spent much of the year under house arrest in his Beijing home. Then in 2015, there was the consummate 709 Crackdown that targeted no fewer than 300 human rights lawyers and activists across the country. I can go on with the list, but you get the picture.
Those considered less than “leaders” have been chased around, driven out of their rentals, and subjected to all manner of harassment. Liberal commentators, journalists, and intellectuals have mostly stopped writing, because it has become too dangerous to analyze and reflect on the current conditions and the behavior of the government. Well, even if they write, their writings won’t survive anywhere inside China’s system of omnipresent censorship.
Come to think about it, that this calculated elimination should have come to Liu Xiaobo, China’s Nobel Peace laureate, is only inevitable: how could the Party allow him to walk out of prison in 2020 and instantly become a Mandela or an Aung San Suu Kyi for China’s struggle toward democracy?
With Liu Xiaobo gone, the mood among activists is one of helplessness. I’m surprised how little argument over the statement “I have no enemies” there has been these days, and indeed, how it ceased to be relevant, while Liu Xiaobo lay dying. This statement used to be a lightening rod that sparked heated discussion. If Charter 08 represents a vision of China peacefully transitioning to a democracy, few today think it a viable option.
I was certain from the beginning that foreign governments — the United States and Germany in particular — were not going to do enough to make Liu Xiaobo’s last wish come true: “If I were to die, I’d rather die in the West” (as he said, via Liao Yiwu). They don’t care enough; they are absent-minded; they almost always underestimate the evil of the Chinese Communist Party; and they don’t know what it takes to get the upper hand with the CCP.
I find it particularly grievous that Liu Xiaobo’s close friends were denied a last chance to see him and say goodbye, despite their repeated and heartfelt pleas on humanitarian grounds. They’d have a much better chance entreating humanity from a pack of coyotes. Rubbing salt in the wound, plainclothes agents then played the role of “family and friends” at Liu Xiaobo’s memorial service.
Altogether, I feel that dying and being dead in the Party’s filthy hands is so ignominious that Liu Xiaobo would have be more dignified dying alone in a dungeon somewhere.
What is the path forward? What’s going to happen next in the struggle for democracy? The path forward is that there is no path forward. The Party has been working systematically to block that path: The elimination of key activists has been successful, and they are either in prison or have been rendered ineffective. To keep tabs on a few hundred or thousand activists is nothing for the Party. If you run down the list of the first batch of Charter 08 signatories — all 303 of them — and see where they are and what they have been doing now, you get a sense how this core group of Chinese citizens advocating change has been faring.
Meanwhile, the Party has been working overtime to cage in and lock down incipient civil society in China — an aspiration that has grown out of the economic and social transformations since the 1990s — by passing one draconian law after another from late 2014 to the present. This includes the law on the management of foreign NGOs, the National Security Law, the Internet Security Law, the revised Criminal Law, the Charity Law, the Counter-Terrorism Law, the counter-espionage law, and more recently, the draft Intelligence Law.
On July 15, Liu Xiaobo’s ashes were given a sea burial off the coast of Dalian and his widow and relatives had their arms twisted to obey the Party’s orders. Since then, a Chinese phrase, “crush the bones and toss the ashes” (挫骨扬灰), has sprung to the mind of many as the most apt description for the Party’s animus. It means that one is so hated that his bones must be ground up and his ashes cast away. Applying it to Liu Xiaobo, it is at the same time literal and true of the Party’s fear of both the man and what he symbolized.
Liu Xiaobo may not have enemies, but the despots in China know very well who their enemies are.
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao