How many dissidents are there in China?
Kate Merkel-Hess and Jeffrey Wasserstrom · Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Prize
At a press conference earlier this year, in response to a question about the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said: ‘There are no dissidents in China.’ No one believed him at the time; but now that Liu has been given the Nobel Peace Prize, it will be even harder for the authorities to make such denials to the international media. A bigger concern for Beijing, however, is with the way the news of the prize plays out in China. Few Chinese people have heard of Liu; reports of CNN blackouts and internet blocks suggest that the government wants to keep it that way.
Beijing’s reaction to the prize, at home and abroad, might lead one to think there’s a massive ‘dissident’ movement in China, an underground constellation of cells lobbying to overthrow the Party. There isn’t. There are plenty of discontented people, angered by everything from official corruption to noxious chemical plants being built near their homes. There’s been an increase in local protests lately, and no end of anti-government jokes circulating on the internet. Very few of the people who take part in a demonstration or anonymously post an anti-official jibe at an online chat site, however, are ‘dissidents’, in the sense of people who make a longterm commitment to seeking political change. The several thousand people who have endorsed Charter 08, an online petition calling for more civil liberties (drafted by Liu, among others, it’s modelled on Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77), are a loose network with shared concerns, not a coherent ‘movement’ with a defined strategy.
Charter 08 isn’t an explicitly revolutionary document; it calls on the government to fulfil its own constitution, not write a new one. And despite his uncommon fame, Liu’s moderate stance – he wants the Communist Party to do a better job of meeting the promises it made in 1949 – is not unusual. Liu believes in seeking common ground with the authorities when possible, refuses to bear grudges and thinks that incremental change can be valuable: he’s no outlier among critical Chinese intellectuals. The activist-in-exile Wei Jingsheng has said Liu doesn’t deserve the Nobel because he’s not intent on toppling the Communist Party.
So why has Beijing’s reaction to Liu’s winning the prize been so extreme? One thing Beijing fears at times like this is division within the ranks of Chinese leaders: authoritarian regimes generally fall when those at the top are divided, and global attention has a tendency to bring out dissent – in the wake of Liu’s win, a group of veteran Party members have written a letter calling for greater freedoms of speech.
More generally, Beijing could be said to be excessively scared of history repeating itself. China’s leaders have studied in detail the mistakes that their predecessors made prior to 1949, and that Central and Eastern European Communists made in the late 1980s. The 1989 protest movement reminded them of Solidarity; Falun Gong resembled the syncretic sects whose risings unseated (in the case of the 14th-century Red Turbans) or nearly toppled (in the case of the 19th-century Taipings) dynasties. The response to Liu’s co-authorship of Charter 08, a document that could be seen as merely an expression of concern by a relatively powerless set of individuals, fits into this pattern. Twelve years after Charter 77 was published, Václav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia.
Liu’s award won’t start a revolution, Velvet or otherwise. It may have some positive effects, however. Most high-profile criticisms of China’s human rights record in recent years – such as the protests along the international legs of the Olympic torch relay – have come from foreigners, and sparked a nationalist response in China. Curiosity about Liu and the reasons he won the Nobel Prize will be harder for Beijing to deflect.