Saturday, October 9, 2010

Liu Xiaobo

Ah, it took Liu Xiaobo to pull me out of my blogging hiatus. It was strange to think that, while walking through Shanghai this afternoon, most people on the street -- people who don’t have access to foreign media or unblocked Internet -- had not heard the news, or even heard of Liu Xiaobo. (Even more alarming is the fact that Liu Xiaobo himself, sitting in a jail in Liaoning province, has probably not heard that he has been awarded the prize.) In the rest of the world it’s front page news, but in China the government has scrubbed clean any mention of this humiliating slap in the face -- all the more humiliating because of the immense value Chinese tend to put on the Nobel Prize.

Almost as soon as the announcement was made, analysts began arguing that the choice of Liu as this year’s recipient will likely cause more harm than good, at least in the short term -- the Chinese government, with its fragile temperament, does not react well to being humiliated, and its response so far has borne this out. But it’s worth remembering that this momentous news comes on the heels of several smaller stirrings of change in China. There are signs of a renewed debate within the government about political reform. Judging from much of the reporting about Liu Xiaobo in the western media, one could be forgiven for thinking that Liu is a diehard anti-government activist. In fact, many Chinese elites in the public realm -- in government and in mainstream media -- subscribe to many of the same ideas. Like Liu Xiaobo, they think China’s judiciary should be stronger and more independent; that the government is ruled by special interests; that censorship stifles innovation and creativity. Even Wen Jiabao, who stood beside Zhao Ziyang in 1989 and then quieted down, has recently made some muted calls for political reform. And I continue to be amazed by some of the material in the Chinese media, especially newspaper and magazine editorials. To take but one example, the southern magazine Nan Feng Chuang recently published a cover story dedicated to criticizing the stifling of free speech in China and the lack of rule of law.

These calls for change aren't as strident as Liu Xiaobo’s. They do not directly criticize China's leaders, and they almost never indicate the underlying problem of China’s political system: that the CCP is unwilling to share power with anybody, or even tolerate any hint that it should share power. And yet, I can’t help but have the feeling that this is a new decade. In the coming years I believe the political climate in China will resemble the ferment of the 1980s more than the clampdown of the 1990s.