China Can't Tolerate Even Normal Behavior

Harold Tanner is a graduate student in Chinese history at Columbia University

China, in the words of its rulers, is "returning to normal." Meanwhile, the Western press, glutted with the China story, turns its attention to flags, abortion and the Common Market. The Chinese Communist Party could think of no better circumstances under which to go forward with the trial, execution and imprisonment of the intellectuals and workers whom they have arrested since the June 4 crackdown. As a friend of one of the few intellectual supporters of the students who is now under arrest in Beijing, I hope that the pressure of public opinion in the West does not fail these heroes of the Chinese democracy movement in their time of need.

One intellectual whom the People's Daily identified recently as a "black hand" behind the student movement is Liu Xiaobo, a literary critic and former visiting scholar at Columbia University. Liu, who I knew in China and who was my guest when he came to the United States, returned to Beijing in late April to join the students in Tian An Men Square. He stayed there until the end, advising, exhorting, and, finally, when the movement seemed to be running out of steam, going on a three-day hunger strike. After the square was cleared, Liu took refuge in a foreign friend's apartment. Presumably, he, like many other intellectuals and students who have escaped arrest for more than a month now, could have stayed underground. However, hiding seems to have gone against his grain. Liu returned home and was arrested on the street shortly afterward.

Now, People's Daily and other official media are accusing him of "criticizing everything Chinese," of saying that Marxism-Leninism is nothing but a fig leaf with which China's rulers attempt to justify their tyranny, and advocating that China become a bourgeois capitalist republic.

Certainly, these "crimes"--if they can be called that--are typical of Liu Xiaobo. He built his entire reputation on his scathing criticisms of Chinese culture and literature, past and present, of Chinese intellectuals, Chinese society and the Communist Party. What People's Daily neglects is that when Liu came to the West, he put Western society and Western intellectuals on the grill right along with the Chinese.

Throughout his short career, beginning with his denunciation of contemporary Chinese literature at an international conference in Shanghai in 1986, Liu cultivated a public image as an irreverent critic. Everyone and everything from ignorant party cultural commissars to some of China's most popular writers and intellectuals, from patriotism to classical Chinese philosophy were all fair game. Inevitably, he offended a lot of people. Statements such as "It would take 300 years of colonialism to bring about a basic change in China" were not calculated to please either the Communist Party or mainstream Chinese intellectuals.

By the time he had been in the United States for a few months, Liu had begun entering a new stage in his intellectual development, in which he regarded his own work with the same cutting criticism that he had used so liberally on others. It was at that point that Liu, having criticized Chinese intellectuals for failing to stand up to the political oppression under which they have lived all their lives, decided to act on his ideals by returning to Beijing to take part in the movement for democracy, and, ultimately, to be arrested.

The Chinese government is now accusing Liu of returning with money to buy arms and carry out a violent insurrection. This accusation is absurd to anyone who knows Liu Xiaobo. He is an intellectual, an appreciator of German philosophy and African sculpture. He is not a violent revolutionist. In a statement issued by Liu and three other intellectuals on June 2, the day before the army's bloody crackdown, Liu wrote: "We advocate the use of peaceful means to advance China's democratization, and oppose any form of violence. However, we are not afraid in the face of violent force; we will use peaceful means to show the strength of the forces of democracy among the people, use peaceful means to destroy an undemocratic system which relies on bayonets and lies to preserve itself."

Is this the Chinese leaders' idea of a call to violent insurrection? Can they accuse a man who couldn't even keep himself in hiding, but was arrested in broad daylight as he rode his bicycle down a Beijing street, of being the plotter of an armed rebellion?

Having arrested Liu, the authorities can point to no real "crime" other than this trumped-up charge. If he is sentenced to jail, or worse, it will not be because he plotted a rebellion; it will be because he is an outspoken, free-thinking individualist. For him, to look critically at Chinese society and government was the basic requirement of a healthy, normal life. It is this kind of normal human behavior that the Chinese Communist Party can never bring itself to allow, and which, eventually, will force it to accommodate itself to reality or be relegated forever to its own quaint version of hell--the "dust-bin of history."

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