Few can forget the media furore last October when the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”. Liu made history by becoming the first Chinese citizen to be awarded a Nobel Prize while residing in China. But he still remains a political prisoner for “inciting subversion of state power” and his wife has since disappeared, her whereabouts unknown even to her family.
This English PEN event gave the first ever UK screening of ‘I Have No Enemies’, a new documentary about Liu Xiaobo, and welcomed a host of writers and academics to discuss Liu’s life and the growing concerns in China surrounding political activism, state rule and freedom of speech.
‘I Have No Enemies’ is a disturbing yet enlightening expose of Liu, his life and his activism. Described by friends as “a brilliant and argumentative academic”, Liu became top of the Chinese government’s blacklist after initiating a hunger strike on 2 June, 1989. Liu argued at the time that it had not been an heroic act but “a gesture of repentance”.
One day after the hunger strike, troops came to reclaim Tiananmen Square. According to the Chinese government, the official death toll was 241 but independent reports say it was in the thousands. Liu was subsequently jailed for 20 months. “I think he feels extremely guilty,” the film revealed one friend as saying. “He initiated the hunger strike; many innocent people got sucked into his whirlpool. In the end they died. I think he blamed himself for that.”
Banned from teaching, Liu began to focus on writing and, to avoid censorship, wrote for a number of websites outside China. Other writers and artists face similar struggles. “In some sense we have almost no freedom,” the artist and activist Ai Weiwei lamented.
Liu’s writing was still regarded as a threat to the state and he was under constant surveillance. But in 2008, the government decided he had overstepped the mark with Charter 08 – the manifesto which called for multi-party democracy and respect for human rights – and he was convicted, without probation, of inciting subversion of state power.
The film points out the irony that it was Liu’s sentence that ultimately earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. “It’s such an encouragement for those who are still struggling,” said Tienchi Martin-Liao, president of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre.
In one particularly moving scene, Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, recounted a visit she made to her husband in prison. She remembers him saying: “The Peace Prize should belong to all the fallen souls of 4 June 1989.” She said that when he mentioned the Tiananmen Mothers he had wept.
The Chinese government cracked down again and forbade Liu’s wife to use the Internet or Twitter and warned that she could be placed under more careful surveillance. Her last message was on 18 October 2010, via Twitter: “It’s me. Don’t worry about me.” She has since disappeared. Not even here parents know her whereabouts.
According to Claudine Parrish, director of ‘I Have No Enemies’ (which was produced by Nobel Media), there had been many hurdles to making the film. With Liu unavailable for interview and the knowledge that the authorities would have clamped down on any filming if she went to China, Parrish conducted all interviews by Skype, which is not monitored in the same way. “There was only one interview that the authorities found out about and the police asked her not to participate,” Parrish explained. “But it was the only incident. Everything else we managed to do and remain undetected.”
“What we can take from this documentary is that if you stand up and declare opposition you will become an enemy of the regime,” said Ma Jian, the exiled Chinese writer, whose words were eloquently translated by his wife, Flora Drew. “As we saw, Liu first came to notice on the public stage of the Tiananmen incident. Since then his life has taken on a symbolic aspect: a symbol of the dissent aspect of China. Whatever his actions, statements or words, he has taken on the role of figurehead for all forces of opposition in China.”
He went on to say that the conflict between Chinese intellectuals and the state has intensified. “There is an unwillingness to address these issues amongst intellectuals. I have spoken to some of them about Liu. In such cases we were very aware that these conversations were being monitored by the police. It was very strained. It is dangerous bringing up these matters; they prefer to turn their eyes from it.”
Turning a blind eye to history is another key issue in China, as PEN’s chair Isabel Hilton (journalist and broadcaster) explained. “Children are hazy on ’89 [the Tiananmen massacre] and ’79 [during the first free speech movement after the death of Mao]. There is a question of amnesia… memory is quite easily obliterated.”
Julia Lovell, a prize-winning translator and lecturer of modern Chinese history and literature, agreed. “The way history is taught, for example, is a fiercely contested political zone. And obviously it is a very public taboo to write about these events [of ’79 and ’89], not just in newspapers and on TV but also in fiction. There is far more private memory of these events than public discourse would imply.”
One audience member, who was in Tiananmen Square in 1989, said the situation has worsened. “From my own experience, compared with those days, the government is cracking down on any kind of demonstrations now… it’s even more severe than in ’89. In ’89, the demonstration started in April and lasted until 4 June. I don’t think that kind of demonstration would last more than one or two days now.”
Ma agreed and claimed that western reaction to Liu’s imprisonment has not had the desired effect. “Appeals so far have proven ineffective. In fact, more people are being arrested. The clampdown has intensified.” He even suggested that we are seeing a return to the climate present during the Cultural Revolution. “Now we are seeing something similar to what happened in the Revolution when they clamped down on an individual and a whole family was implicated. We can see that with Liu: not only has his wife vanished from the scene but his whole family has been sucked into the predicament. From my point of view, whether it’s in the private or public sphere, it seems history is still alive, continuing and ever-present.”
So, Hilton asked, what can the west do? Salil Tripathi, a trustee of English PEN and chair of the Writers in Prison Committee, argued that a key problem is that China is viewed as “a different and special country”. He quoted Chris Patten, ex-governor of Hong Kong, who said: “If it stares at you, you stare back.” “All of us need to be confident,” said Tripathi, “it’s just another country.”
Ma suggested that the London Book Fair next year, which will have a Chinese focus, should broaden its horizons. “The book fair can only become significant if the British do not limit themselves to the state-sanctioned authors and invite the underground authors,” he said.
“What puzzles me is how western politicians have changed since Tiananmen when they were standing up for ideals… where have those politicians gone? They seem to be blinded by commerce. The more involved this relationship between China and the West becomes, the more western values will be compromised. The question is, how much is the West prepared to compromise?”
Report by Alexandra Masters
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/ihavenoenemies/