Chinese Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) has been hailed as a bold champion of democracy, but a new compilation of his writings shows him also to be deeply introspective and doubtful of the West’s model.
Liu has been in forced silence despite winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. Chinese authorities sentenced him the previous year for subversion for spearheading Charter 08, a major petition for political reform.
In a bid to offer a fuller picture of his thought, a new book — published in English as No Enemies, No Hatred by Harvard University Press — collects not only Charter 08, but also years of essays and poetry by Liu.
In one defining experience, the now 56-year-old writer said in 1989 of a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and how he was “struck with how superficial my thinking was.”
“I suddenly realized how insignificant the China issues I have been wrestling with are, if one measures them in terms of true spiritual creativity,” Liu wrote in 1989, on the eve of Beijing’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square.
“My tendency to idealize Western civilization arises from my nationalistic desire to use the West in order to reform China,” Liu wrote.
Liu was also critical of the West’s views of China.
While welcoming those who seek academic or spiritual pursuits in China, Liu said that most Westerners “still maintain deep-rooted feelings of superiority toward non-Western people.”
Two decades before he won the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu dismissed Westerners who praised him as a “rebel.”
“When I hear such praise, it makes me feel as if I am not really a visitor from China so much as a person who has been stuffed into a leather case and loaded onto an airplane to be displayed, as and where my hosts see fit, as a novel object from a distant land,” he wrote.
Yet Liu struck a different tone after the 2008 election of US President Barack Obama, saying that the US’ ability to vote into power a member of a historically disadvantaged minority group showed “the greatness of the American system.”
In one of his most provocative essays, Liu wrote that China should follow the lessons of Obama’s election and appoint the Dalai Lama — Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader who is constantly criticized by Beijing — as China’s president.
Thanks to the Dalai Lama’s global prestige, his appointment “could “do a huge amount to improve China’s international image” and serve as a model for resolving other disputes, such as that of Taiwan, Liu wrote.
“The dawn of true political reform in China can arrive as soon as Chinese authorities sit down at the negotiating table with the Dalai Lama,” Liu wrote.
Perry Link, a Chinese literature expert and one of the book’s editors, said that Liu was certainly aware that his proposal was far-fetched, but that Liu employed the idea to draw attention to China’s treatment of minorities.
Link also said that Chinese readers might be impressed by the modesty of the leading dissident.
Many Tiananmen Square leaders “have come in for criticism as being too posing and trying to be heroes too much,” Link said. “He’s doing the exact opposite.”