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.


  • 14 October 2010 at 6:25pm
    tanyajeffrys says:
    My Chinese friends tell me that while they don't care about the Nobel Prize, what worries them is that in the Eighties, Liu Xiabo was known for extolling the virtues of the Japanese occupation of China and bemoaning the fact that they hadn't stayed for fifty years more to 'civilize China.' Could this be true? Not that it would have worried the Nobel Committee in Oslo, whose record, to put it mildly, is erratic.

    • 15 October 2010 at 1:12am
      conflated says: @ tanyajeffrys
      The comments I've seen were in an interview to a HK magazine in 1988 and seems more like the wild hyperbole of youth than a policy proscription. It was an expression of frustration at China's slow pace of liberalization and reform.

      Xujun Eberlein's blog (in English) gives a good overview on Liu's detractors (apart from the ones in the CCP that put him in prison, that is).

    • 15 October 2010 at 10:29am
      Jason Kennedy says: @ conflated
      Interesting blog.

      I don't agree with the blogger's contention that it matters not where the funding for Liu Xiaobo comes from, that is disingenous.

      I did not know that there is a money trail from the NED through PEN to Liu. While that in no way suggests his beliefs are not sincerely held, there is the question of if he receives more play in the West because of how he's resourced. Is he basically a US asset?

      I regarded Obama's 2009 prize as part of US propagandizing, and my reaction to this year's was that it was once again being used to bolster the US, this time by showing the Chinese authorities in a negative light, much as the US cable networks ran hundreds of negative pieces when China hosted the Olympics.

      And included some naked propaganda moments:

      (I don't remember US athletes arriving wearing masks for events in pollution hotspots Atlanta and L.A.)

    • 15 October 2010 at 3:24pm
      Xujun says: @ Jason Kennedy
      Jason, I absolutely cannot understand how you could possibly characterize my lack of interest in funding sources as disingenuous. I simply do not care about this. I also never said it doesn't matter. I merely stated that it was not a topic of my personal interest – I'm more interested in discussing Liu Xiaobo's character and thought. If you are interested in the founding source topic, there is a big debate going on at the Peking Duck blog – go check out the comments under this post:

      Xujun Eberlein

    • 15 October 2010 at 4:43pm
      Jason Kennedy says: @ Xujun
      Xujun - "Frankly, I don't care where Liu Xiaobo gets his money from."

      Xujun - "I’m more interested in discussing Liu Xiaobo’s character and thought."

      That suggests that some neat separation exists between the two. I regard you as being disingenuous because I do not accept that to be the case.

      "I simply do not care about this. I also never said it doesn’t matter."

      You may not have said it does not matter, explicity, but isn't your saying that you don't care about it implying that it does not matter? Or do you often not care about things that matter?

    • 15 October 2010 at 4:53pm
      Xujun says: @ Jason Kennedy
      I am not sure where you are coming from Jason, but if you think that everything that matters to you must also matter to others, we definitely don't have much to talk about.

    • 15 October 2010 at 5:01pm
      Jason Kennedy says: @ Xujun
      Okay, so you can seriously discuss Liu's 'character and thought' without taking account of a factor such as where his funding has come from.

      I don't like this super-closed prissy style of yours. You need more practice communicating with others.

    • 15 October 2010 at 5:04pm
      Jason Kennedy says: @ Jason Kennedy
      "I am not sure where you are coming from Jason, but if you think that everything that matters to you must also matter to others, we definitely don’t have much to talk about"

      I don't think your language skills are up to much, as what you wrote there was a complete mischaracterisation of my statement.

    • 15 October 2010 at 5:11pm
      Jason Kennedy says: @ Jason Kennedy
      "we definitely don’t have much to talk about."

      This part is correct. End discussion.

    • 15 October 2010 at 5:25pm
      Xujun says: @ Jason Kennedy

      I find it odd that someone who makes personal attacks such as "I don't think your language skills are up to much" (and "prissy" and "disingenuous") is accusing me of poor communication skills. I think you are probably getting upset because you don't really have a point to make. With your excellent English, surely you know the difference between "it doesn't matter" and "it doesn't matter to me."

    • 15 October 2010 at 7:33pm
      A.J.P. Crown says: @ tanyajeffrys
      Tanya Jeffrys [sic] Not that it would have worried the Nobel Committee in Oslo, whose record, to put it mildly, is erratic.

      That's the Chinese government's line.

    • 16 October 2010 at 2:02am
      Jason Kennedy says: @ Xujun
      "I think you are probably getting upset because you don’t really have a point to make."

      Right. The armchair psychologist has arrived.

      My manners may be poor, but the communication skills, no, because I communicated what I wished to. On the other hand, you don't appear capable of referring to what others say without recasting it to suit your own, ahem, arguments. And that is a far greater sin against the practice of debate than my rudeness.

      If you can't work out that the charge of being disingenuous relates to your assertion that the source of Liu's funding has no bearing on his character and his activities, then I can't help you.

      Anyway, others can read this and take what they want from it. You came back with another prissy statement, so there we have it.

    • 16 October 2010 at 6:01pm
      Xujun says: @ Jason Kennedy
      I thought both of us could have a break on a Saturday. But since you don't, I will keep you company. "On the other hand, you don’t appear capable of referring to what others say without recasting it to suit your own, ahem, arguments." It astonishes me that you would say that, since it is so definitively true of what you have done in this discussion.

      If your language and communication skills are as excellent as you believe they are, then we ought to be able to agree on one simple thing: our original difference is that you consider the source of Liu's salary to be a far more important issue than I do. You, apparently, can't bear the notion that someone would dare to hold a different attitude from your own. Okay, then try to convince me why I should think like you do on this. Instead, you attack the personality of a person you know nothing about. When I disagree with this approach, you, apparently, can't bear the challenge from a non-native speaker, and again make personal attacks. This, I'd call "arrogance," to put it mildly.

      Now if you can tolerate discussion, let me try to put things into context for you. The debate about Liu and NED started in the US blogosphere, including my blog, about two years ago, around the time of "Charter 08." The debate was very intense, and both sides laid out lots of arguments, with endless repetition, and without reaching a consensus. It was getting so tiring, and I lost interest. I have other things more interesting to discuss on my blog. So when the same debate was once again triggered by this year's Nobel Peace Prize, and someone copy-pasted the same tired arguments on my blog, I told him I didn't care. I don't blame you for not knowing the history, however to put a judgment on my personality after one glance at my blog, that is a bit imprudent for a journalist.

    • 16 October 2010 at 6:17pm
      Xujun says: @ Xujun
      P.S., I forgot to say that I did not take sides in that debate. I hope this is allowed by you.

    • 18 October 2010 at 5:07pm
      faiz says: @ Xujun
      dear xujun i would like to thank you for finding the patience to respond to these provocations with such grace; i appreciate your willingness to return the discussion to the original question, of whether it matters if Liu received funding from the NED, thanks

    • 18 October 2010 at 6:05pm
      cigar says: @ Xujun
      From your first post here:

      "I merely stated that it was not a topic of my personal interest – I’m more interested in discussing Liu Xiaobo’s character and thought."

      If a Chinese dissident is willing to take money from an organization with clear links to a foreign power, with interests that mostly go against those of China, a foreign power that sees human rights only as a propaganda tool even for justifying military invasion, occupation and indiscriminate air bombing of cities, then surely this has some bearing on the *moral* character of that dissident. Are his politics, his desire for power (no matter how moral the ends) clouding his judgment?
      One can't merely judge a dissident by his ideas - one also has to consider his deeds. Specially if his ideas deal directly with a state's policies.

      Just like the original posters, you seek to avoid uncomfortable questions. In their cases it is the typical grant seeking US academics' increasingly desperate attempts to avoid class conflict by focusing on identity politics (check out their CV's). In your case the taboo is US involvement in domestic Chinese politics through support of dissidents (and ethnic or religious groups such as those in Xinjiang, plus the Falung Gong). You can't appeal to academic specialization in this case: the Charter 08 was an overtly political statement, not some philosophical tract. And so Kennedy is right in calling you disingenuous.

  • 15 October 2010 at 2:47pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Aren't the Nobel Prizes all played out by now? The awards for literature in the past few years have, as one person wrote, been erratic, to say the least. Jellinek was surely an aberration, as was Dario Fo a few years back (much as I enjoy his work.) The peace ones have also been odd at times, going back to the days when Kissinger turned up but the Vietnamese minister did not. Certainly bad news is always good news in the west when it comes to China.

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