THE 20TH CENTURY WAS MARKED by near-absolute totalitarian political systems in massive industrial societies. It was also a time for dissidents to rise and broadcast their dissent to their societies and the world. These dissidents exposed the true ugliness of tyrannical regimes. They are often our most cogent lens for seeing the endless strategies of spreading fear and administering punishment typical of many regimes then and today — the strategies we see recycled in Syria now, for instance, and will see again.
If there is to be a pantheon of such dissenters, Nobel Peace Laureate and Chinese writer and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo will have a prominent place in it. Liu is convinced that China is on the way to achieving a more democratic state, and that the Internet especially makes it possible for criticism and even political organization to thrive. He recognizes that the worldview informing his criticism of China is a Western one: it consolidates democratic ideals, separation of judicial, legislative, and executive powers, and freedoms of speech, assembly, association, and religion into a sophisticated vision of civil society.
Liu and fellow dissidents were inspired by Charter 77, the 35-year-old Czech manifesto calling upon the then Communist government of Czechoslovakia to respect human rights and bring to an end the normative fears and repression endemic to totalitarian societies. He became the main sponsor of the Chinese Charter 08 whose purpose was not to petition the authorities for change but rather to announce shared ideals to other Chinese people ready to hear them.
In the forefront of calls for democracy in China, Liu has engaged in various forms of dissent. In June 1989, at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests for democracy, Liu and three friends announced a three-day hunger strike to protest the treatment of protestors and to support the democracy movement. Many such actions have landed him in jail for years at a time, and his writings have often been suppressed.
Not all of them, though: two decades of Liu’s anti-totalitarian-regimes writings have been compiled into No Enemies, No Hatred, a fascinating, if somewhat flawed, compendium and an important read for anyone interested in the Quaker injunction to “speak truth to power.” Liu is virtually a paragon of that injunction, and of the words of the Gospel according to John: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” In No Enemies, he rebukes his fellow Chinese elites who “have yet to learn how to draw spiritual meaning from our encounters with suffering, how to live in human dignity, or how to feel concern for the suffering of actual, ordinary people.” He not only criticizes the politically privileged he sees as stifling human growth and expression, he also admonishes his fellow Chinese who know the truth, but are too easily intimidated to attempt unmasking and opposing it.
But Liu saves his most incisive an...read more