Will Liu Xiaobo's death end our China fantasy?

In December 2010, when Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia, I was part of a team that organized a small protest in New York to condemn his imprisonment. The year before, the Chinese government had sentenced him to 11 years of imprisonment for coordinating Charter 08, a manifesto that called for moderate reforms and democratic change in China.

Standing in the freezing temperatures of the New York winter, I tried to think of the future to warm myself with a little optimism. Eleven years would go by slowly for a prisoner but much faster for the rest of us. One day – in the year 2020, to be more precise – Liu Xiaobo would walk out of prison and live as a free man, I thought to myself.

Or would he?

Richard Gere removes the first bar of an art installation at 2010 public event organized by Students for a Free Tibet and Hum
Richard Gere removes the first bar of an art installation at 2010 public event organized by Students for a Free Tibet and Human Rights in China.

There were scores of Tibetan political prisoners who had died while serving their sentence or within days of being released: 43-year-old Goshul Lobsang, 24-year old Pema Tsepak, 45-year-old Buddhist scholar Ngawang Jampel… the list goes on and on. A report by the International Campaign for Tibet details the case of 29 Tibetan political prisoners in particular, 14 of whom died in prison or shortly after their release.

I tried to play the Liu Xiaobo scenario forward in my mind, and it didn’t look good. Come 2020, when he would have served his sentence, the Chinese government would be staring at two scenarios.

Scenario 1: Send Liu Xiaobo into exile and cut him off from China in a bid to make him disconnected from his homeland and disappear into irrelevance. But the risk of that would be to propel this Nobel laureate into the global limelight and allow him to consummate his iconic status by becoming the undisputed spokesperson for Chinese democracy. Xi Jinping and the CCP would have to deal with a Herculean adversary on the international stage.

Scenario 2: Stop Liu Xiaobo from leaving China, and place him under house arrest (like the Tibetan writer Woeser) or place him under constant surveillance (like Ai Weiwei). But that would not stop Liu from writing, speaking, and reaching the hearts and minds of the Chinese public. In the Internet age, it would be nearly impossible for the regime to silence him even with all its totalitarian tactics once he is out of jail. For the first time, the fragmented Chinese democracy movement might have a unifying figure who could provide leadership, inspiration and a moral center of gravity.

Both options were unacceptable to Beijing. The first would allow Liu to undermine the CCP’s legitimacy on the global stage; the second would allow him to challenge the CCP’s authority in the domestic arena. Either way, Liu was destined to become the patron saint of dissidence and give the Chinese democratic forces an unprecedented sense of unity and purpose.

However, for the CCP, there was always a third option: the regime could arrange for Liu Xiaobo to die before his time of release. Liu’s high-profile status might have shielded him temporarily from the state’s heavy-handed tactics of intimidation, but it could not save him eventually from its cold and calculating strategies of elimination. According to reports by the China Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy based in Hong Kong, Chinese authorities may have known about Liu’s collapsing health as early as 2015, when he was diagnosed with liver cirrhosis but authorities modified his health report to forestall the possibility of medical parole. For the CCP, nothing is off limits.

Two years ago, Tenzin Delek Rinpoche became a victim of the ‘third option.’ Rinpoche, a renowned social reformer and Tibetan environmentalist, was serving a life sentence in prison under false charges of “crimes of terror and incitement of separatism.” After years of torture and maltreatment, Rinpoche’s health deteriorated and he developed a serious heart condition. An application for medical parole was filed in 2014. If granted, the parole would allow Rinpoche to seek treatment at a hospital, and perhaps to reestablish contact with his Tibetan devotees numbering in the tens of thousands.

On July 12, 2015, the Chinese government announced that Tenzin Delek Rinpoche had died in prison. His family believes he was murdered by the state. He was the most high-profile Tibetan political prisoner at the time, perhaps too high profile and influential to be allowed to live – subverting the logic that fame brings one a measure of safety. In hindsight, it begins to seem implausible that the same regime that is responsible for Rinpoche’s death would allow Liu Xiaobo to live.

Yet recent years have seen a frightening tendency in the West to humanize the Chinese leadership. Policy makers and opinion makers often go out of their way to portray the Chinese government as a complex political system wherein there is room for nuance, negotiation, and a capacity for mercy.

Will Liu Xiaobo’s death pop the bubble of our China fantasy? He received no mercy from the CCP even after death. To deny him a memorial, his ashes were cast into the ocean in a forced sea burial against the alleged wishes of his widow Liu Xia. The exiled writer Liao Yiwu has called this act “too evil,” saying that the CCP leaders are “a bunch of gangsters.”

At a time when liberal democracy is embattled and the president of the United States has antagonized the world, some nations in the free world naively look to China for leadership on major global issues such as trade and climate change.

Unfortunately, the CCP is not a government of men with global concerns who share a genuine sense of responsibility for humanity. It is simply the world’s largest gang whose only goal is its own perpetuation, a machine-like entity that is bent on terminating anyone who poses a threat to its power. As the greatest proliferator of oppression, it can only lead us backward, into a dystopian world where tyranny, censorship and dictatorship are normalized.

Interestingly, the only other country that has ever imprisoned a Nobel laureate to death was Nazi Germany, where the pacifist Carl von Ossietzky died in police custody in 1938. If Hitler’s Germany was not fit to lead a new world order in 1938, neither is Xi Jinping’s China in 2017.

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