No sooner had I finished reading an article that eulogized former Czech president Vaclav Havel, the playwright turned dissident turned peaceful revolutionary turned president who had just died, than two subsequent news stories set Havel’s extraordinary career in context: the death of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s pornography-addicted and nuclear-armed supreme leader, and the peaceful protests against land expropriation by the villagers of Wukan in Guangdong Province, China.
If Havel ever had any moments of doubt about his lasting positive impact on the world, I hope he was able to see reports from Wukan before he died. In that fishing village of 6,000, the “power of the powerless” that Havel promoted as a means to undermine totalitarian rule was demonstrated anew, and with such enormous dignity and discipline that it has galvanized China like no protest since those in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989.
Kim, in a sense, was the anti-Havel, lacking not only moral scruples, but even the usual dictatorial concern for how a country is managed. His death made me recall that of Mao Zedong (毛澤東), with all the mass hysteria — real and feigned — that accompanies the demise of a self-anointed god.
However, Mao’s death did at least end the era of Caesarism in China. Because he had no son to succeed him, Mao appointed a five-person politburo to do the job. Its members, which included his nephew, Mao Yuanxin (毛遠新), his mistress, Zhang Yufeng (張玉鳳), and Jiang Qing (江青), his last wife — were as incompetent at governing as Kim, but, following the disaster of the Cultural Revolution, antagonism to them in the military and other state institutions was too widespread for them to last. They, and the Gang of Four (of which Jiang was a member), were soon ousted.
China’s transit from Caesarism to despotism, and then from Marxism to capitalism, has been fortunate for China’s citizens. North Korea’s bad luck is that, despite his incompetence, Kim Jong-il seems to have managed to bequeath the dynasty he inherited to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. Given other North Korean institutions’ apparent indifference to the mess that the Kims have made of their country, there seems scant chance of any serious change of course being initiated from within. However, a fight for power might yet spell the end of the regime.
North Korea is a kind of looking-glass world to Havel’s dictum that, to survive under totalitarianism, one must live in truth. Fortunately for Havel, Czechoslovakia’s small-minded communist rulers were also small-minded in their lies. However, when every aspect of society is built, as in North Korea, on a Big Lie, and then an Even Bigger Lie, it is probably hard to maintain one’s sanity, let alone the ability to live in truth.
In any case, Kim Jong-un’s reign is unlikely to last or be as certifiably crazed as those of his father and grandfather. Communism, thanks to the lure of successful market economies and the example set by people like Havel, has put the system under such external strain that Kim III has nowhere to turn for effective help. Indeed, even the two regimes most eager to maintain the Kim dynasty — China’s and Russia’s — are feeling pressure from their disaffected but, it now seems, not-so-powerless populations.
In Wukan, simple villagers were unafraid to challenge the might of the local party and police when officials stole their land for a development project. In Henan, policemen have gone into the streets demanding that human rights be protected. In Dalian, hundreds of thousands of people protested against the construction of a petrochemical plant. Unlike what has happened so far in Wukan, the Dalian protest was crushed, but it — like the tens of thousands of other protests across China last year — signaled to the ruling party that ordinary Chinese are no longer interested only in the politically passive pursuit of material gain.