Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Liu Xiaobo Empty Chair: a book from the New York Review of Books

A New York Review Books e-book original
July 12, 2011

In Liu Xiaobo's Empty Chair: Chronicling the Reform Movement Beijing Fears Most, Perry Link, China scholar and regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, chronicles Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo's story: from his arrest, show-trial, and harsh sentencing, to the suppression of Charter 08, an eloquent pro-democracy manifesto that he helped write. Liu is still serving out an eleven-year prison sentence while the government undertakes one of its worst crackdowns on dissent in decades.

Writing about Beijing's attacks on dissidents in the wake of the Arab Spring, Link draws on leaked government documents to reveal just how nervous the regime has become about prospects for a "Jasmine Revolution" in China. The e-book includes the full text of Charter 08 and other primary documents.

New York Review senior editor Hugh Eakin spoke with Perry Link about the book and the importance of the Charter 08 movement.

Although Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo is little known in China and most of his writings have been read only by a small circle of intellectuals and activists, the Chinese government considers him an enemy of the state and has sentenced him to eleven years in prison. What makes him so threatening?

There is a tremendous amount of popular discontent in Chinese society today. People feel angry about corruption, special privilege, land grabs and forced relocations, air and water pollution, and repression of unapproved religions. Many people feel insecure about their future. The Chinese government is well aware of this discontent and spends much effort and huge sums of money to keep it atomized and disorganized. The authorities repress Liu Xiaobo's writings because they are afraid that his ideas would have broad appeal and could give shape to movements that they could not control.

Among the writings that have most concerned the Chinese government is the document called Charter 08, which Liu Xiaobo helped draft and which you have translated in full in your book. What ideas in it, in particular, make Beijing anxious?

I have no doubt that the idea in Charter 08 that most upsets Beijing is the call for an end to one-Party rule. The charter's other ideas—elections, a free press, separation of powers, an independent judiciary, an apolitical military, to name a few—might be argued as matters of degree, but an end to the Communist Party's monopoly on power stands out as the one idea that is an utter anathema to China's rulers. In addition to the Charter's ideas, its tone likely causes them some distress as well. The writing in the Charter is clear, rational, moderate, broad of vision, responsible, and well organized—in short, not easy to refute, and for that reason a headache for an autocrat.

Following the mass uprisings in the Middle East, many people are wondering whether something similar could happen in China. You suggest that is unlikely for now, despite the "pent up anger" many ordinary Chinese harbor toward their government. Why?

A Jasmine Revolution is unlikely in China because the repressive apparatus there is far more extensive and sophisticated than in many of the Middle Eastern countries. The relatively peaceful abdications by dictators that we saw in Tunisia and Egypt would never happen in China, where the rulers, in their determination to stay in power and their willingness to use violence to do so, are more like the rulers of Libya and Syria. But the Libyan and Syrian regimes are twenty years behind China's in their techniques. They are still using tanks and machine guns. China's rulers, who used those methods in 1989, have in the intervening years worked hard on ways to find and snuff out dissent before it goes anywhere. The budget for internal "stability maintenance" in China this year is about 550 billion yuan—more than the government spends on its military, and more than it spends on health, education, and social welfare combined.

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