Rachael Johnson

The Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo has inhabited many roles throughout his life. He has been a poet, essayist, academic, public intellectual and political activist. Although no stranger to incarceration, he has also, of late, become one of the world’s most celebrated prisoners of conscience. In 2009, the Chinese government sentenced Liu to 11 years’ imprisonment for his involvement in Charter 08, a manifesto calling for democratic change. A veteran of the Chinese democracy movement, the writer-activist has also become a global symbol for freedom. In 2010, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” No Enemies, No Hatred brings together a selection of essays and poems by Liu Xiaobo, documents from his 2009 trial and the Charter 08 manifesto. 

Perhaps the first thing that strikes the reader of No Enemies, No Hatred is its remarkable scope. Liu’s essays cover various facets of Chinese life - economic, political, cultural, social and sexual- and tackle subjects as diverse as the 2008 Beijing Olympics, female erotic writers, President Obama and Confucius. The subjects of his poems include the Tiananmen Square crackdown, Jesus Christ and St. Augustine. 

No Enemies, No Hatred manifestly aims to strengthen global consciousness of Liu Xiaobo’s art and thought. In the selected essays, Liu advocates liberal democracy, non-violence and freedom of speech. Charter 08 includes calls for democratic reform and human rights’ protection as well as freedom of speech, worship and assembly. The manifesto’s plea for free speech of course takes on particular power in the light of Liu’s incarceration: “We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.” In an essay entitled “On Living With Dignity in China” (1998), he extols Jesus, Gandhi and Martin Luther King as examples of non-violence. No Enemies, No Hatred also features Liu’s crusading pieces on human rights abuses in China. A case in point is the appalling 2007 “Black Kiln” incident involving the abduction and forced labor of children in brick kilns in Henan and Shanxi provinces. Liu boldly targets “the official-underworld alliance” that allowed such abuses to flourish while accusing the Chinese government of a gross lack of accountability. The collection equally chronicles the development of rights awareness in China. Highlighting the suffering of farmers under Mao, Liu expresses support for the demands of today’s farmers for private land ownership. The land manifestos of 2007 represent “a true awakening” for the writer as Chinese farmers “are laying claim not only to land ownership but to their rights as citizens.” 

Liu’s neo-liberal commitment to privatization is, however, challenging to those of us who are troubled by its economically divisive effects. Manifesto 08 clearly calls for economic liberalism and the protection of private property: “We should establish and protect the right of private property and promote an economic system of free and fair markets. We should do away with government monopolies in commerce and industry and guarantee the freedom to start enterprises.” Interestingly, Liu professes faith in an ethical brand of free enterprise as he attacks Chinese state capitalism. In an essay entitled ‘Behind the “China Miracle” (2008), he argues that privatization in China has created nothing less than “a robber baron’s paradise”. The piece is a particularly trenchant critique of China’s boom. Liu contends that China’s Communist political class is now primarily dedicated to the gods of profit and consumerism. 

Liu is indeed damning in his criticisms of modern China. He describes 20th century China as fundamentally nationalistic and militarist and present-day China as repressive, nationalistic and xenophobic. Liu is particularly scathing about the resurgence of Chinese popular nationalism. His essays are peppered with acute assessments of its manifestations. “A nation obsessed with gold medals will never turn itself into a great civilized nation,” he notes caustically on China’s Olympic ambitions. He cites the Chinese media’s promotion of race pride and the current ‘sage-worship’ of Confucius as further symptoms of the trend. Urban Chinese youth are equally characterized as xenophobes impervious to national self-critique. Indeed, Liu goes further still. Not only are they chauvinists but self-seeking, consumerist “little Emperors”. Liu paints China’s urban young with the broadest of brushes. Personally, I do not recognize his description. The Chinese students I have taught have been caring, tolerant and inquiring. It is equally evident that Liu is unacquainted with egocentric, consumerist chauvinists in Western and other Asian nations. Nor does he show any inclination to address the nationalism and militarism of other great powers in the 20th and 21st centuries.   

Liu’s criticisms of modern China are moral as well as political. The poet lays bare what he sees as the country’s governing values: money and sex. In “Living With Dignity in China”, he contends, “With the devaluation of faith and the sacred, people are enthralled by carnal desires. Stripped of compassion and a sense of justice, they are reduced to callous, calculating economic beings, content with a life of ease.” There is, in fact, a Christian dimension to Liu’s thought that has been ignored by most commentators. As mentioned above, Jesus is praised as a model of non-violence together with Gandhi and King. His example is, however, given particular attention in the piece. The embodiment of “boundless love” and mercy as well as the antithesis of greed, Jesus is nothing less than a “model of martyrdom”. In the epilogue to his book Chinese Politics and China’s Modern Intellectuals (1989), Liu also asserts, “No one in the years since Jesus was nailed to the cross has again sacrificed himself for humanity and humanity has lost its conscience.” Christianity arguably informs the words that make up the title of this collection. They are taken from Liu’s final statement at trial: “I have no enemies and no hatred.” Liu’s Christian consciousness expresses principled anti-materialism, admiration for Christ as a model of love, peace and sacrifice as well as a deeply conservative regret over the decline of original sin.  

Liu makes the claim that popular Chinese culture is currently obsessed with sex. He does not, fundamentally, perceive the “erotic carnival” of 21st century China as a sign of collective liberation but as a symptom of “spiritual emptiness”. The so-called “pretty girl” female erotic writers appear to be the exception. They have, the poet suggests, achieved “authentic self-expression” in penetrating China’s “hypocritical, patriarchal system”. Interestingly, Liu does not reproach the West for the carnival but the CCP. “The roots of this cynicism and moral vacuity can be traced to the Mao era,” he insists. 

Liu’s writing charges the Chinese Communist Party with despotism and corruption as Manifesto 08 calls for the end of the one-party system. The writer also, however, makes the following observation: “China’s autocratic political system has endured for millennia, and right up to today there has been no fundamental change in it.” The remark may be embraced as an essential truth or dismissed as an ahistorical banality. It must be said, however, that Liu is not entirely pessimistic about present-day China. He recognizes that the Communist party no longer has the same totalitarian control it had in the past. He also celebrates the internet’s role in promoting popular debate of vital national issues, diversity of opinion and civil society. 

What of Liu’s proclamations on the West? Although a primary intellectual and political influence, he has expressed misgivings about its example. In the epilogue to Chinese Politics and China’s Modern Intellectuals, Liu admits his previous obsequiousness towards the West and declares: “I now realize that Western civilization, while it can be useful in reforming China in its present stage, cannot save humanity in an overall sense.” The statement, however, only serves to underline the writer’s naïveté. It should also be noted that Liu’s disenchantment with the West has a distinct Christian character: humanity’s “descent” is identified with the loss of “original sin”. Worryingly, the revelation also appears to reflect a refusal to consider the enlightening global potential of Chinese philosophy. What is more, Liu shows a depressing lack of faith in cultural cross-fertilization. He contends: “In my view cultures usually block out other cultures; we will have to wait for a truly transcendent talent if we are ever to see a person fundamentally exit the cage that is native culture.” 

Liu is perhaps least persuasive when writing about the United States. His essay on Obama’s 2008 election is arguably the weakest in the collection. While acknowledging the progressive part of the Democratic Party, Liu suggests that Obama should perhaps be more thankful to the Republicans for his momentous win. While reminding the reader of Lincoln’s immense legacy, he also cites Reagan and Bush Jr. as models of tolerance. He argues that Reagan’s establishment of Martin Luther King Day and Bush’s nominations of Colin Powell and Condolezza Rice as the United States’ first African-American Secretaries of State have helped create a more racially tolerant America. Firstly, Liu’s observations shamefully ignore the historic roles of black civil rights leaders. Secondly, they obscure Reagan’s frankly unpardonable record on race. He is apparently unaware that the president was initially against the federal holiday. Nor, it seems, is he aware of Reagan’s opposition to both Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This is not to mention the fundamentally anti-poor, anti-black character of Reaganomics. Bush’s nominations were historic firsts but his inexcusable response to Hurricane Katrina will forever sully his record on race at home. In the same piece, Liu proposes that China emulate America’s enlightened example and appoint the Dalai Lama as president. It is a simultaneously audacious, provocative and fanciful suggestion. 

Liu’s take on American foreign policy is blindly romantic and one-dimensional. As the United States has not always adhered, in practice, to its democratic ideals, many around the world would find the following statement breath-taking: “The US rose in the 20th century without relying on the occupation and plunder of colonial territory, but was built by supporting freedom, democracy, and national independence around the world, including independence from colonial rule.” Although mindful of China’s militarism, Liu demonstrates an astonishing historical ignorance of America’s military-industrial complex. 

Whatever one’s views of Liu’s political beliefs, it is difficult to deny the man’s fearlessness as both a writer and campaigner. In his introduction to No Enemies, No Hatred, editor Perry Link highlights Liu’s courageous, life-saving negotiations with the army to allow students leave the square during the Tiananmen Square protests.  Remarkably, an impression of humility is conveyed in Liu’s reflections on the crackdown. He expresses guilt over his privileged position in his 1991 essay “Listen Carefully to the Mothers of Tiananmen”. He reminds us that it was not the intellectual elite or university students who made the greatest sacrifice or suffered the greatest punishment during and following Tiananmen but ordinary Chinese people. Yet Liu is deeply familiar with sacrifice and punishment. The writer has, in fact, been imprisoned for his beliefs a few times. In the 1990s, he spent three years in a labor camp. 

The private and collective trauma of Tiananmen Square haunts Liu’s poetry. It is a pain most powerfully expressed, perhaps, in “Your Seventeen Years”, written two years after the crackdown. Addressed to a young protestor, this heart-breaking poem expresses deep survivor guilt: “I, alive/and with my share of infamy/have not the courage, nor the right/to come bearing flowers or words/before your seventeen-year-old smile”. “Standing Amid The Execrations of Time” is another poem about Tiananmen. Written in a labor camp 10 years after the event, Liu takes aim at what he sees are the everlasting abuses and hypocrisies of Chinese power while describing a mournful mother’s desire to uncover “the lie of a century”. Liu’s poetry is both personal and political. Equally affecting are his poems to his wife. In “What One Can Bear” (also penned in a labor camp), he asks her: “Beloved/let me ask you through the dark/before you go to your grave, remember/to write me a letter with your ashes, remember/to leave me your address in the netherworld”. Liu’s preoccupation with faith is also evident in his verse. There are poems addressed to both Jesus and St. Augustine.

No Enemies, No Hatred contains fascinating observations of contemporary Chinese culture while providing a unique perspective on Chinese politics. Liu’s roles as both an eyewitness and actor of modern Chinese history equally charge his words with the credibility of experience. The writer’s poetic and polemical descriptions of the dehumanizing effects of state power are often poignant and powerful. Sharp, succinct criticisms of the status quo, however, co-exist with censorious rhetoric that arguably caricatures contemporary Chinese society. Stepping outside of China, Liu moreover exhibits a disquieting ignorance of the sins of other nations. The poet is clearly a considerably complicated political and intellectual figure. Hopefully, this book will inspire the global reader to study Liu’s ideas and verse in greater depth as well as encourage discovery of other politically engaged Chinese writers. 

Rachael Johnson has published several papers and articles on film, gender and cultural history. Her pieces have appeared in CineAction, www.objectif-cinema.com, PopMatters and JGCinema.com. Currently based in the UK, she has taught English and creative writing.