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

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

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

We often see evidence of the Open China in prosaic behaviors. We see it when people on the mainland quietly collect their frustrations with the policies of the second Xi, recording what they see as human-rights abuses in secret files tucked away, hoping and waiting for the day when expressing hope for greater openness will be safe again. Sometimes in recent years the people we have in mind looked to Hong Kong as a beacon, traveling there to buy luxury goods and enjoy the sight of clean streets and gleaming skyscrapers, but also reveling in a space with newspapers that could express dramatically different views on current events. Families took risks to land in Hong Kong’s maternity wards to give their children economic and educational opportunities unavailable on the other side of the border.

Today, however, it is difficult to ignore the fact that Hong Kong’s luster has begun to fade in a China increasingly under the shadow of the second Xi. Many on the mainland now scoff at the idea of Hong Kong superiority. Shanghai’s economy is booming, while Hong Kong’s seems stagnant. Hong Kong boasts the best products the world can buy, but local mainland brands like Huawei, Chinese youths we have met argue, are a match for any on offer in the global marketplace. Even the allure of Internet freedom in Hong Kong seems overrated when China’s WeChat can perform nearly all of the functions of Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp combined and more.

The rift between the Open China and the Closed China, and their respective defenders wherever they are found, yawned wider still in the wake of Hong Kong 2014 umbrella protests. Defenders of the former saw brave people speaking truth to power; those of the latter accepted the contrasting view promulgated by mainland media, which presented the umbrella movement as silly at best, harmful at worst. There were mainland professors who proclaimed Hong Kongers running dogs of the imperial West. Everyday commentators criticized Hong Kong agitators for hurting small businesses.

What Taiwan Can Teach Us About the Two Chinas

The events of July 13 and 14 made for a distressing convergence, but they were followed by an anniversary that reminds us that history can take unexpected turns. July 15 marked the passage of 30 years since a dramatic move toward liberalization and openness took place across the straits from the Chinese mainland on Taiwan. On July 15, 1987, the government of the Republic of China (ROC) lifted nearly four decades of martial law. Established in 1949 and made permanent in 1954, martial-law policies were a hallmark of the rule of over the island of Chiang Kai-Shek, who governed there from the time he began his exile from the mainland until his death in 1975. They embodied his autocratic governing style, which he first demonstrated while controlling the mainland. Under martial law, oppositional political activity was banned, dissidents were jailed, and free speech was stifled. These policies remained in place when Chiang’s son Chiang Ching-kuo succeeded him. But, surprisingly, in the mid-1980s those dissidents with little power under Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime were able to force the hand of this onetime head of the secret police—a background that hardly portends a potential reformer—who subsequently began to soften his father’s stance. The New York Times quoted political opponents to Nationalist rule on that day in 1987: “Political Environment Unclear.”

Sinologists, we should remember, looked at not just the Taiwan side but both sides of the strait with trepidation and anticipation in the mid-1980s, for there were forces working for openness on the mainland as well. Less than two years after the end of martial law, in fact, excitement about Taiwan’s prospects was matched, then exceeded, by the thrill of news of massive demonstrations on the mainland. In late April and early May of 1989, crowds of over a million students and workers, men and women, parents and children flocked to Tiananmen Square to call for the same political freedoms with which the ROC was just beginning to tentatively experiment, and smaller but still massive crowds gathered in the plazas of other cities as well. Few knew which China would ultimately follow the path toward greater openness. Until, that is, the Goddess of Democracy, a symbol of hope for the mainland coming to embody the Open China, was toppled as martial law was declared on the mainland, and the People’s Liberation Army gunned down unarmed demonstrators in Beijing’s June 4 Massacre.

Today it is hard to recapture a sense that it once seemed possible that the mainland, not Taiwan, would exemplify most fully the Open China. The island country now has a robust democracy, while the continental one has taken no steps to introduce elections since the early 1990s. There are other striking contrasts as well. Taiwan has elected its first female president, while China’s highest political body, the Politburo Standing Committee, still has never had a female member. Taiwan’s courts have moved to legalize same-sex marriage, while mainland censors try to erase the presence of LGBTQ citizens from the Internet. Thirty years ago, it seemed entirely possible that it would be Deng’s China, not Chiang’s Taiwan, that would be more of a symbol for liberalization, hard as that can be to remember now.

Wither the Other China?

Some commentators, in an effort to avoid despair in reacting to the darkness of recent events in the PRC, have claimed that the second Xi is moving his country toward a watershed moment that will somehow inevitably galvanize a turn towards global leadership. They ask, “when will China become more like Taiwan?,” implying that familiar Fukuyama end-of-history belief in the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy. This seems to us wishful thinking. It ignores many things, including the fact that many on the mainland see Taiwan’s current situation as far from ideal. Where some see achievements in social justice across the strait, nationalists proud of how the Closed China of the second Xi has been rising in the economic as well as geopolitical order see an island losing its allies. Where some see a robust democracy, other see a flagging economy increasingly dependent upon cross-strait trade and a political order marked by squabbles and rowdiness in the legislature. Where some ask, “When will the mainland be more like Taiwan?,” others ask, “Why would we want it to be?”

Recent global events have also been a boon to the second Xi and his supporters, as no China exists within a vacuum. It is not only Hong Kong and Taiwan that can be seen as flawed by many on the mainland—it is the entire Western tradition. Whereas US democracy seems hopelessly deadlocked and unable to pass basic legislation protecting health care and social safety nets, China’s authoritarian system has lifted millions of people out of poverty. And the election of Donald Trump, with his retreat from the global community and his crude, paranoid ways, can makes Xi seem calm and clear-eyed by comparison, especially when he speaks of things such as the need to protect the Paris climate-change accord.

Today it is easy to think that the only choices are to grasp at straws and hope that oppression will inevitably breed resistance, or accept that the second Xi now holds all the cards that matter, especially since he has paid only a small cost for Liu’s death in terms of international blowback. We are aware that many predictions that one or another factor—the coming of the Internet, the expansion of the middle class, the Arab Spring, you name it—would trigger liberalization of the mainland have been proven wrong, but we also see a mix of fragility as well as the obvious strengths in the Closed China of the second Xi. It can be hard to find solace just now, and to speak of signs of imminent change seems to give in to wishful thinking.

Thinking about the resilience of the dream of an Open China, though, we do find some basis for hope in words that the great writer Ursula Le Guin said about a different closed system. In accepting the National Book Award in 2014, Le Guin reminded listeners that, when current political traps seem “inescapable,” they should keep in mind that once “so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” It once seemed foolish to predict that Chiang’s son would begin a process that opened Taiwan. It may be that the human capacity to resist and change will yet surpass our expectations.

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