Never has absence spoken so loudly. The empty chair in Oslo today is the place where Liu Xiaobo should have sat in honor for his courageous defense of human rights in China. Instead, Mr. Liu languishes in a Chinese prison for the crime of encouraging political reform. China’s utterly repressive reaction to Liu’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize reveals that, beneath the Western-style suits and ties of its current leadership, the old tyrannical hearts of Mao’s Red Guard beat furiously. China is not reformed, it only looks modern. Don’t be fooled by all that dazzling new construction and the appearance of people moving about freely in Beijing; this is a regime of intolerance and oppression that still uses the crudest of weapons against freedom — the imprisonment and silencing of dissidents.
I was at a business meeting recently where China’s ability to erect magnificent new architectural wonders in very short periods of time was hailed by American corporate leaders as something to emulate. By comparison, said the speaker, America is saddled with an aging infrastructure, broken water mains, escalators that have been out of service at Metro for years, and outmoded technologies. When I hear American business leaders extolling the virtues of China, I shudder, knowing full well that Chinese “progress” comes at the price of appalling labor practices and shocking environmental destruction.
Sure, freedom has a heavy price. To a great extent, some of the current misery the United States is feeling is a direct result of the gift of freedom — we spend a lot more time arguing than acting, and we are now at a logjam in Congress such that the future of any legislation is in peril. Labor unions remain a strong force in the U.S., and sometimes unions do resist progress and reform. But we dishonor the moral underpinnings of our own commitments to justice and freedom in this country when we decry the right of people to organize labor, and, instead, hold up tyrannies as symbols of economic progress.
American civic life appears messy and fraught with conflict these days —- no worse than days in the past, actually, as a close reading of our history back to the Revolutionary Era will demonstrate. The U.S. is such a fractious nation that we even had a Civil War over our most fundamental values about human rights and freedom — and freedom won, though in too many places we’re still having the wrong arguments about civil rights and states rights and justice and political empowerment.
Last year, an American president occupied the chair that now sits empty in Oslo. President Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 in what many interpreted as a gesture of support and encouragement for his efforts “to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation among peoples.” Critics of the award said that Obama had not been in office long enough to have a real impact, but the Nobel Committee seemed to be sending a message of affirmation for America’s bold choice in electing this new president. A year later, Obama is in deep political trouble, and many of his own party are openly challenging his inability to fulfill the promise of his election. What’s important in this picture is that such dissent and open disagreement are a vital part of our American tradition of free speech and real democracy. We may have our raucous and often-bitter debates —- but we cherish the right to do so.
The empty chair in Oslo is a resounding “j’accuse!” against a regime that has exposed its disrespect for human rights.
While Liu was unable to be at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, his ‘final statement’ was read in place of the traditional Nobel Lecture. In this statement, he recounts what happened when he returned to China in 1989 to take part in the Tiananmen Square protests, and was subsequently arrested:
“I was imprisoned for “counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement to crime,” losing the platform which was my passion; I was never again allowed publish or speak in public in China. Simply for expressing divergent political views and taking part in a peaceful and democratic movement, a teacher loses his podium, a writer loses the right to publish, and a public intellectual loses the chance to speak publicly, which is a sad thing, both for myself as an individual, and for China after three decades of reform and opening up.”
Twenty years later, he was arrested again for calling for more political reforms. As he was preparing for the trial that led to his 11-year prison sentence, he wrote that, “I have no enemies” and explained his philosophy this way:
“For hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation’s spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy. I hope therefore to be able to transcend my personal vicissitudes in understanding the development of the state and changes in society, to counter the hostility of the regime with the best of intentions, and defuse hate with love.”
Liu’s Peace Prize now stands alongside such notable human rights leaders as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela. Whether Chinese authorities will have even a private moment to reflect on the world’s call to justice and freedom remains a mystery.
See Washington Post Editorial , “China’s Shame, ” on China’s repression of Liu, his supporters and the Nobel Peace Prize … “Not since Nazi Germany has a regime reacted in such a belligerent way.”
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