Business Today

A Light Fades Out

By Ananth Krishnan        Print Edition: August 13, 2017
A Light Fades Out

At a time when Donald Trump's America grapples with building walls and withdrawing from the world, there has been a growing temptation for some to see China, the world's second-largest economy, as the next champion of the liberal global order. There can perhaps be no starker reality check - and one that should put paid to such notions - than the untimely death of Liu Xiaobo.

On July 13, China's most well-known dissident, writer and Nobel Laureate died from liver cancer in a hospital in Shenyang, a city in northeast China where he was serving a 11-year jail term for "inciting subversion of state power".

Liu was detained in 2008 over the circulation of Charter 08, an unprecedented pro-democracy call for reform signed by more than 300 Chinese intellectuals and thousands of others. Their key argument was that despite China's prosperity after three decades of reforms, the country's one-party political system was an anachronism. Liu played a role in drafting the text as well as in moderating its message. The Charter mostly called on the CPC to uphold the constitution and guarantee freedom of speech and association, although its call to end one party's monopoly on power was deemed too threatening by the state.

As recently as in 2008, Chinese civil society, although still tightly bound by the one-party state, was beginning to find its voice. A growing middle-class, enjoying prosperity, became increasingly concerned about its rights - even if not its political rights, its right to safe food, a clean environment, independent information and living without harassment from the state.

For the first time, lawyers were taking up environmental and rights abuse cases, and the press was slowly pushing the boundaries. And Liu Xiaobo was the most recognised face of this new emerging movement. His jailing in 2009 will perhaps be remembered as the day the party stamped out this emerging civil society.

Where does his death - and his hasty cremation (Liu's ashes were buried at sea, ostensibly to ensure his grave couldn't become a monument for his supporters) - leave China? At his trial, Liu expressed the hope that he will "be the last victim of China's endless literary inquisitions and that from now on no one will be incriminated because of speech".

That was not to be. In the eight years since Liu's jailing, the economy of Xi Jinping's China has thundered on despite hiccups, yet the state has only further curtailed the exercise of rights enshrined in China's own constitution.

Despite everything that he and his wife Liu Xia - who has been under house arrest since the Nobel award in 2010 - went through, Liu remained an optimist. "It is precisely because of such convictions and personal experience that I firmly believe that China's political progress will not stop, and I, filled with optimism, look forward to the advent of a future free China," he had said at his trial.

And that was because Liu knew that how much ever the state tried to silence him, his message would endure. As Geremie Barme, Australian Sinologist and long-time friend of Liu's, wrote in a tribute, "Xiaobo will always be part of that Other China: the China of possibility, hope and humanity."

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