While Chinese censors are anxiously scrubbing away at social media content, the world continues to mourn for Liu Xiabo. At 61, Xiabo died due to late-stage cancer in his liver. The Chinese government that had imprisoned him for two decades released news of his sickness only days before his death. During the G20 summit, world leaders such as Chancellor Merkel offered repeatedly to hospitalize and attempt to treat Liu. Their offers were coldly turned down. Professor Liu passed away on Thursday, July 13th, 2017.
An emphatic dissident, political prisoner, and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Professor Liu died a martyr’s death: an ending most governments would hope to abate for its enemies. After all, allowing your opponents to die for what they believe in not only makes them appear stronger and justified, but makes the leadership appear cruel and unjust. History has shown this to be true, through the cases of William Wallace, Joan of Arc, Socrates, and others alike. If anything, these examples have proved that martyrdom does not silence a cause, but instead, propels it forward. It strikes a match within those who have not been moved to take a stand and burns even heavier in the hearts of those who have. Leaders from all around the world, from as early as King Henry of France and Queen Mary of Scotland, have learned to prevent their enemies from becoming martyrs. So why did the Chinese government allow Professor Liu to die a hero – a martyr? To answer this question, we must trace back centuries into the roots of Chinese history.
The “People’s Republic Of” China, as we know it, was not always a Communist regime. For dynasties, (Shang, Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, Qing) it was a tyrannical one, ruled by emperors and kings who would pass their titles down to their progeny until leadership grew weak and rulers were overthrown or conquered. Strong, vicious rulers like Shi Huangdi maintained order and obedience in their realms by imposing fear in the hearts of their subjects. Shi burned thousands of earlier books he deemed politically dangerous. By the way, ‘politically dangerous’ usually meant the texts featured benevolent and gracious rulers, who the emperor didn’t want citizens to compare him to. It is also known that he buried hundreds of Confucian scholars alive because he viewed their “rulers have a responsibility towards citizens” philosophy as a threat as well. The damage ensued by this destruction of intellect and knowledge is inestimable. It may as well have erased thousands of years of culture and academia.
What does Shi Huangdi have to do with Liu Xiabo? Not much, some might think. But as the first true Chinese emperor (as many consider him to be), Shi Huangdi set a precedent that many following him would emulate, for centuries to come.
Many Westerners find it hard to understand just how powerful ancient Chinese rulers were. That is because they compare such reigns to those of Western figures. For example, in European courts, kings (and unmarried queens) were heads of their states, however, they did not possess true ultimate power. Many looked to Rome for religious influence and aid, especially before the Protestantism spread. Others were often limited by the beliefs and stances of their nobles, as seen in French courts. Nearly if not all of them were required to follow some sort of legal process of the justice system before condemning enemies to any type of punishment. One way or another, these leaders were beholden to their citizenry. Even in a court so corrupt as King Henry VIII of England’s, trials were held against political prisoners, even if evidence and testimony had to be falsified to condemn them. This was not at all the case in ancient China. Whereas western rulers were accepted to be appointed and blessed by God himself, Chinese rulers were thought to be God in human form. They did not have to provide reason for killing their subjects, much less providing lesser punishment. They were not beholden to the same rules, regulations, and laws of their realms.
And thus, a political culture of utmost obedience of the people to the government was born. Those in charge felt they could subject the commons to whatever they saw fit, without question. And so, when the communist party took control of China in 1949, its leadership assumed total control. Chairman Mao Zedong famously said something along the lines of “Shi Huangdi only killed 460 scholars. We killed 4,600.” Yeah, fun. The Communist Party also proceeded to rid its realm of ‘rightists’ and right-wing content of any sort. Such political philosophies were considered treasonous. Even after Mao’s death and the slight opening-up of China to the rest of the world, human rights are still out of the question. False propaganda imbue the daily lives of the Chinese citizenry. Those who marched in the 1989 Tiananmen Square Demonstration were massacred, mowed down by government tanks. Peaceful proponents of a a fair judicial system, free market, and uncensored media, such as Liu Xiaobo were attacked and imprisoned, labeled traitors. The firewall went up and continues to erase and block content from the lives of almost 1.4 billion people every day, just as Shi and Mao destroyed texts in their respective eras.
So with all this in mind, it’s understandable why a Communist China does not fear Liu Xiabo’s martyrdom. With the tools in hand to essentially blind their citizenry to any potential threat and the unwavering support of the supposedly greatest proponent of democracy in the world, China has little to fear. The United States government, while lamenting the undeserving death of Professor Liu, has not severed any ties with the realm. In fact, in the wake of Liu’s death, President Trump has proudly announced that the ban on American beef has been lifted in China, furthering US-China trade. Many have also spoken out against former President Obama for his promise to veto Senator Ted Cruz’s measure, which proposed naming the street in front of the Chinese Embassy after Professor Liu, in an effort to take a stance against Communist China’s denial of human rights to its citizenry. In other words, the USA has given China it’s A-OK to proceed.
That’s why the Chinese government allowed Liu Xiaobo to become a martyr. That’s why they ignore the #FreeLiuXia protestors, keeping Liu Xiaobo’s wife under house arrest for no other crime than being his loving wife. They think they have no reason to be afraid. They think they can hide the dissent and opposition and are likely erasing this article from millions of servers in this moment. They think they can silence us.
Are they correct?