Liu Xiaobo’s vision of a democratic China is becoming more and more irrelevant to Hong Kong’s youth amid an ongoing identity crisis.
(Original photo credit: Wpcpey via Wikipedia)
They shared a common opposition to Beijing’s authoritarian rule, but the late Chinese dissident and human rights campaigner Liu Xiaobo was no separatist as he stood against Hong Kong’s independence advocates, according to a Canadian academic.
Leo K. Shin, a University of British Columbia (UBC) historian and Hong Kong analyst, said Liu, who died of liver cancer on July 13, “understood the reality that Hong Kong cannot be a separate state, cannot be independent of China.”
Liu was diagnosed with the fatal disease while serving an 11-year jail sentence imposed on him by the Chinese government in 2009. His ‘crime’, which contributed to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, was to openly campaign for political reform, most forcefully expressed through his co-authorship of Charter 08. The document challenges the communist party’s grip on power through its calls for a new Constitution to provide for the separation of powers, legislative democracy, an independent judiciary, human rights protection, the election of public officials, and the decriminalisation of free speech.
Liu, who was first jailed for his role in the June 4, 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing, saw the introduction of the rule of law as crucial to China’s next phase of development. This was needed to build a just and stable society in light of the country’s worsening corruption and moral challenges during its rapid economic take-off in the 1980s and 1990s.
Yet, as a patriot, he recognised that China, battered by over a century of conflict and colonial rule from 1839 to 1949, must remain united.
With his focus on the “big picture”, Liu saw Hong Kong as a part of a strong integrated China, said Associate Professor Shin in an interview at a special event on July 19 to commemorate the death and achievements of the 61-year-old scholar activist.
“As for Hong Kong’s localist movement and some of its younger generation who have been calling China ‘the neighbouring country’, Liu Xiaobo clearly pinpointed that as a mistake,” said Shin, a co-director of the UBC’s Centre for Chinese Research. About 80 people attended the event held at the UBC campus located outside Vancouver city.
“In Charter 08, Liu Xiaobo saw Hong Kong as a part of a federated China,” said Hong Kong-born Shin who came to Canada in 1989.
Liu would have wanted Hong Kong to be governed in a way that allows its inhabitants to have a voice in their government. This would also apply to Taiwan and Tibet that Beijing regards as part of China, said Shin.
‘Red line’ underscores Hong Kong’s importance
Liu’s death came barely two weeks after China celebrated the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Beijing following 156 years of British colonial rule.
Speaking in Hong Kong on July 1, China’s President Xi Jinping warned Hong Kong’s localists against crossing the “red line” in their campaign to maintain the anti-Beijing protests that had begun in 2014.
Xi’s red line consists of “any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty and security, challenge the power of the central government and the authority of the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland is an act that crosses the red line.”
Hong Kong has come to symbolise China’s struggle to reclaim what it sees is its rightful place on the world stage. Hong Kong was ceded to Britain in 1842 following China’s defeat in the first Opium War that opened up the country to colonisation by the European powers and Japan.
A key sentence in Xi’s speech threaded China’s “past humiliation” with the return of Hong Kong as a “monumental achievement for the Chinese nation.”
Framed in this context, Liu was more aligned with Xi than Hong Kong’s independence campaigners.
Might the localists view Liu as an irrelevant mainlander or even traitor to their pro-democracy cause?
“Some of Hong Kong’s young people are very much saddened by Liu’s death while others may consider him as irrelevant,” said Shin.
“But I hope no one will see him as a traitor. He was a brave man who stayed behind in China to push for reforms.” Unlike many of the Tiananmen student protesters of 1989 who fled to the West, Liu carried on his pro-democracy fight on home soil.
Hong Kong’s challenge to Beijing — and Liu Xiaobo
Like Liu Xiaobo, many Hong Kong residents have chosen to stay and fight for the freedoms and rights given to them by the British colonial government that Beijing is now taking away.
But unlike Liu, they will not follow his path of peaceful resistance against Beijing’s rules. Instead, Hong Kong is nurturing a generation of Liu’s angry alter egos: hardcore street protestors and defiant young lawmakers swept into Legislative Council by the popular vote.
Alarmingly for Beijing, more Hong Kongers reject being Chinese, directly contradicting Liu’s goal and hopes for a proud united China. Some are deeply ashamed that the modern powerful China that has risen from the ashes of a century of humiliation is still holding onto the primitive authoritarian political culture of dead emperors responsible for the country’s decline in the first place. A Hong Kong seeking a continuation of its rules-based way of life can find no comfort in Chinese history and cultural traditions, nor political sympathy in Beijing. In Chinese ideological battles, it’s often a fight to the death.
For the believer, Liu’s death will only serve to magnify his ideals and the struggle for a more humane and progressive China.
There is hope for Chinese society, insists Josephine Chiu-Duke, a co-director of the UBC’s Centre for Chinese Research and an expert on Chinese intellectual history.
“The civilisation has survived for thousands of years. No matter how dark the situation, there’s always been hope because of intellectuals like Liu Xiaobo,” she said.
Liu’s decades of struggle will be remembered as heroic and inspiring, but they also exposed the deep-seated problem of the Chinese contempt for those without status and power. As befell anyone who dared question the emperor in ancient times, Liu, his wife and their loved ones were made to suffer, and in the most open manner possible.
Liu’s persecution was expected even if it was difficult to comprehend as he had sought dialogue and an opening of the Chinese mind, not armed revolution, to deal with the country’s recent social, political and environmental problems. Heady from the spectacular success of their economic liberalisation programmes in the 1980s, China’s reformists were as intolerant of questions and criticisms as the Maoist revolutionaries they had replaced.
If a gentle soul speaking the voice of reason and patriotism is treated as an enemy of the state, Hong Kong’s young would have concluded that Liu had chosen the wrong approach. They admired his perseverance but not his methods as Beijing gave him the same harsh treatment as it did to real criminals.
In light of Liu’s suffering and premature death, who would now dare to openly keep the movement alive in Xi Jinping’s increasingly repressive China?
“There are others who are quietly keeping it going. Many are operating in the shadows,” said Chiu-Duke, who is also a member of the university’s recently launched Hong Kong Studies Initiative.
No need for that in Hong Kong. However negatively Liu might have felt about separatism and localism, Hong Kong’s irrepressible young activists are effectively carrying on his fight for a freer, progressive China. In so doing, they are defying not just Beijing but Liu Xiaobo himself.
Ng Weng Hoong
Vancouver journalist with interest in political and economic issues. Contact WengCouver@gmail.com.