Fri, Sep 23, 2005 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: China, meet the lusty Mr. Li Ao

Anyone tiring of pan-blue obstructionism will be disappointed once again by the actions of the Great Jogger and Great Blue Hope, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Chairman Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九), who yesterday spat in the face of the judicial system and embraced last year's presidential-assassination conspiracy theory afresh, demanding a continuing investigation into the shooting, the election and the referendums. The dead hand of former KMT chairman Lien Chan (連戰) can be sensed here, but of more consequence is the pending death of the hope that Ma can transform the KMT into something other than the cynical and destructive machine that it is.

So it comes as a welcome relief that independent Legislator Li Ao (李敖), who in China called Ma a "do-nothing" politician, has returned to his homeland, and delivered a speech to eager students and staff at Peking University. Li, a historian and one-time political prisoner, has intimate ties to both the pan-blue and pan-green camps, and is reviled by elements in both. Since his election to the legislature last year as a blue-friendly maverick, Li's celebrity status has been revived -- an ample reward for those addicted to muckraking and kooky conspiracies.

Waving around bogus US intelligence documents "proving" that President Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) had himself shot, and publishing advertisements alleging that Control Yuan president nominee Chang Chien-pang (張建邦) drove his stepmother to commit suicide in a Tamkang University office, Li became the subject of the very freak show he was employing to hit out at enemies all around.

In short, Li had become a rabble-rouser, but without the benefit of a rabble willing to take any notice. The situation had become so dire that actor Bacy Tang (唐從聖), who imitates Li on a TV comedy show, gave Li more credibility than the lawmaker could give himself.

In Beijing, Li was given a hero's welcome -- until he started talking. Li's freewheeling speech started not with icons from the pantheon of Chinese history, but with a US Civil War anecdote involving president Abraham Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant. He then warmed up, praising liberal Chinese nationalist Hu Shih (胡適), and skewering officials in attendance with this Hu quote: "The struggle for national liberty is the struggle for individual liberty."

The speech, delivered without notes, covered the problems of liberalism, communism and Mao Zedong (毛澤東), and embellished throughout with anecdotes and colorful language to offend everyone, a style for which Li is well known. The most memorable -- and by Chinese standards, inflammatory -- of these was probably his likening of free speech to consuming pornography: neither should be feared, and both provide useful outlets for a lusty population.

Pro-independence Taiwanese academics such as Hsu Yung-ming (徐永明) and Chen Yi-shen (陳儀深) have sniffed and moaned about the speech, criticizing details such as Li's downplaying the bloodshed during the 228 Incident, but all of this misses the point. Li's very public embrace of Hu's liberalism and his readiness to provoke blinkered Chinese audiences as much as Taiwanese viewers is a welcome development, and something for which he can be forgiven a late career detour into muckracking and conspiracy-mongering.

Ultimately, Li's pilgrimage to China is noteworthy for two reasons. The first is that even the demands of "Greater China" nationalism and its advocacy cannot restrain Li's ego -- his individuality. The second is that the communist authorities, as they rushed to censor Li's speech, were surely scratching their heads, looking at Li -- their latest would-be unificationist tool -- and asking themselves: "If this is what passes for a friend in Taiwan, then what hope is there?"

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