Friday 15 October 2010

A Tale Of Two Dissidents

So the beat goes on. From one side we are assured that Liu Xiaobo is a traitor, an American agent (despite the fact that even the PRC authorities have not made this claim) based on allegations that he received support from organisations like PEN and the US-funded National Endowment for Democracy. From the other side we hear that awarding the Nobel Prize to him was counter-productive. As Nick Young, whose article making this claim in last week's Guardian I criticised, explained to me in an email:

Over the years I came to understand that, alongside the many tensions inherent in China's fast-forward change processes, state-society relations were on the whole adversely affected by the conceited self-righteousness of foreign China-bashers in general, and, in particular, of some internatioal human rights 'advocacy' organisations that busied themselves looking for disaffected Chinese citizens and turning them into prison fodder. That remains my view.

This, of course, from a man who was thrown out of China for writing on political issues.

The main position on both sides appears to be that foreign involvement with Chinese dissidents serves only to dirty them in the eyes of the Chinese public and put them in danger of government reprisals. The supposition appears to be that, had Liu Xiaobo not received support from foreign organisations, then he would perhaps have avoided prison. Unfortunately we cannot go back in time and see what might have happened had he never been associated with foreign organisations.

Or can we? Liu Xiaobo is far from the only dissident held by the Chinese authorities on charges of 'subversion'. We have also the example of former Nanjing Normal University professor, Guo Quan. Unlike Liu Xiaobo, Guo Quan has publicly eschewed association with foreign human rights organisations, and his writings have struck a decidedly nationalistic tone.

Did this save Guo? Clearly not. In fact it is remarkable that, whilst Liu, who cultivated links overseas, is now the subject of high-profile international appeals for his release, Guo Quan remains virtually forgotten even in his own country. Even were there a domestic campaign for Guo's release this would be unlikely to achieve anything, since it would be nigh-on impossible for it to make head-way against government censorship.

Whilst I disagree with Nick Young's characterisation of people like Guo and Liu as merely disaffected individuals, we must admit that they exist in every society, and would exist with or without foreign assistance. The decision, then, is not whether they should be 'created' (in Nick Young's parlance "[turned] into prison fodder"), but whether to support people who will work to improve their society whatever foreign observers do.


Bill Rich said...

I wonder whether the people who had their home destroyed by government to make way for close friends and family of government officials to make money by developing the vacated land will do better by not associating with foreign organizations ? If so, how, as most of these people don't have any contact, much less help, from anybody, in China, or foreign.

Trumped up charges are the tools of the dictator. There were so many examples in CR that were even more extreme than the Liu case. You can die just because someone yell "traitor".

justrecently said...

It's Liu Xiaobo's approach to associate with foreigners, and his choice. Not to mention that it is his right to do so. It may help party organs to discredit him for now, but his choice apparently makes sense for him.

It's interesting that exactly the journalist who refers to the prize (or other decent gestures) as conceited self-righteousness would at the same time suggest that foreign media or organizations were turning people like Liu Xiaobo into prison fodder. As if dissidents were unable to make choices. They have proven many times that they can make very tough choices.
What constitutes patronizing (or whatever people may like to call it) probably depends on if people close their left or their right eye while criticizing the phenomenon.

It doesn't make sense to base our decisions on such "politically-correct" deliberations. We should do what we believe is right. Our responsibilities depend on us as individuals - no matter if we are Nobel Prize Committee members, dissidents, "common people" in China or elsewhere, or officials.

Gilman Grundy said...

@Just Recently - Great to see you're still around.

Nick Young isn't exactly a journalist - as far as I can work out he was some kind of consultant for NGOs, but then got kicked out of the country for writing about politics without being registered as a journalist etc.

No doubt he's honest in his opinions, but, as you said, the assumption seems to be that there wouldn't be any dissidents if foreign backers weren't 'creating' them. Really, there would be dissidents whatever foreign organisations did, it's just that without foreign help it is difficult for them to get their message across and they have less protection against the authorities - although, even with help, they have very little protection.