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What Liu Xiaobo’s Death Says About China’s Two Futures


China’s president has crafted an increasingly progressive image for himself abroad, while stifling dissent at home.

Gina Anne Tam and Jeffrey Wasserstrom report: In mid-January, when Xi Jinping made his debut at Davos, the head of the Chinese Communist Party and president of the PRC took pains to appear as a self-confident leader determined to guide his country into a high-tech, globally interconnected future. He wanted the world to think that China had put far behind it the century of oppression by foreign powers that preceded the founding of the PRC, during which time, so goes the national myth, the country had been poor, weak, and badly governed. He wanted, too, to show that China had moved on from the ideological upheavals, irrational personality cult, and global isolation that characterized much of the era of rule by Mao Zedong (1949–76). This image of Xi, taken at face value in some international press reports, has stayed in the news via reports of such things as his championing of the “One Belt, One Road” initiative, presented as a 21st-century reboot of China’s economic integration with the global community.


Chinese protesters waving the country’s flag as they take part in a demonstration in Chengdu, southwest China’s Sichuan province against Japan’s claim of the Diaoyu islands, as they are known in Chinese, or Senkaku islands in Japanese. Anti-Japan protests broke out on August 19 in more than a dozen Chinese cities including Beijing and Hong Kong as authorities allowed thousands of people to vent anger over an escalating territorial row. STR/AFP/GettyImages

Recently, however, we have seen abundant and dispiriting evidence that there is a second, very different Xi to reckon with—one who wants to close off rather than open up China and who heads a government that makes moves eerily reminiscent of those associated with dark parts of the Mao era. Six months after the first Xi made headlines in Davos, this second Xi was refusing the requests of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo to receive life-saving treatments overseas, leaving him to die a prisoner of conscience. The first Xi speaks of global human rights, but the second has overseen an escalation of Internet censorship that has reached new extremes in the wake of Liu’s July 13 death, and, in a throwback to the guilt by blood-and-marriage ties that characterized the Cultural Revolution, he continues to persecute the prisoner-of-conscience’s wife, Liu Xia.

It was also the second Xi who went to Hong Kong at the start of this month to preside over a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the day that Hong Kong transitioned from a British Crown Colony to a Special Administrative Region of the PRC in 1997. The July 1 pageantry was filled with military symbolism, including not just a review of troops but also a visit to the harbor by an aircraft carrier. During his visit, each action and word signaled to residents of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region that, in the “One Country, Two Systems” formulation that characterized the 1997 agreement, the former must always trump the latter.

As Xi Jinping moves China in new directions, national pride among 20 and 30-year-olds is growing. Li Xiapeng once idolized the west. Now his world view has changed. Photo: Menglin Huang/The Wall Street Journal

Lest this not be chilling enough to those fighting to preserve the 50 years of autonomy promised in 1997, within two weeks of Xi’s departure, and just one day after Liu Xiaobo’s death, a legal ruling stripped a total of six pro-democracy office holders of their positions in Hong Kong’s legislative council because they had shown insufficient solemnity during their swearing-in ceremony. Two were known for embracing extreme positions, and thus a rejection of their oaths was expected. But the essentially equal judgment passed on four more moderate figures clearly showed that, for this second Xi, there is no gray zone.

[Read the full story here, at The Nation]

For people who teach and write about China for a living, as we both do, the conjuncture of July events has been deeply disturbing. This is not just because of the contrast between the moves the second Xi has been making and the speech he gave six months ago, but also because of the contrast between the hopes of a decade ago and the realities of today.

China in 2007 and in 2017

A decade ago, with the Beijing Olympics on the horizon, it still seemed possible to think that China’s rise in the global economic and diplomatic orders would be accompanied—perhaps with a bit of lag time, but accompanied nonetheless—by the development of a much more open society. In 2007, even those who dismissed as unrealistic—and patronizing—the fantasy that a global “end of history” tide made a multiparty democratic PRC state inevitable found reasons to feel heartened by many trends.

Yes, the Chinese Communist Party, then under the control of the uncharismatic Hu Jintao, was committing appalling human-rights abuses, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang, but in other parts of the country zones of freedom were very gradually expanding. From year to year, academics were able to discuss more issues than they previously could, bookstores could stock a wider range of titles, journalists had more leeway to report, human-rights lawyers were better able to defend their clients, NGOs could operate more effectively.

Nationalistic messages calling for Chinese solidarity and the boycott of foreign goods have spread like wildfire in Internet chat rooms.

The mood during the years just before the Olympics were such that Liu Xiaobo, during his last period of freedom between prison terms, could write a blog post early in 2006 that referred to the wonderful possibilities opened up by digital means of organizing and communicating. Room for working within the system seemed possible. The trend lines shifted, though, after the Olympics were celebrated as a success and China’s leaders felt emboldened by their country’s ability to ride out the financial crisis soon that came later in 2008. The final years of Hu’s rule saw moves toward tighter controls, and this new trend accelerated once Xi became head of the Party in 2012 and then president in 2013.

Two Xis, Two Chinas

It is not only Xi that now seems Janus-faced—it is China itself, something that recent events have brought into sharp relief. There is a Closed China and an Open China.

The Open China lost one of its great symbols with the death of Liu Xiaobo. In a moving eulogy to Liu Xiaobo, New Zealand–based scholar Geremie Barmé described him as representing the “other” China—not a controlled state with increasing global clout but a place of possibility, hope, and humanity. He said, echoing a sentiment many Sinologists feel, that he fell in love with that “other” China and is heartened by any signals that it still exists. We each saw proof of the endurance of this “other China” in Hong Kong in 2014, when students and members of other groups took to the streets to demand an electoral system that allowed for more anti-Beijing voices and ultimately defend their right to speak out in ways impossible across the border. We see this “other” China, this Open China, living on when mainland mourners for Liu trade encrypted messages online, dodging censors determined to scrub his presence from cyberspace … (read more)

via The Nation

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