Argument

China’s Burden of Shame

China’s Burden of Shame

Liu Xiaobo is a brave man who loves his country. It was an honor to have been among those to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s a great thrill that he got it. Now we have to hope that this moment becomes another stepping stone on China’s long march toward greater freedom.

This is a crucial moment in China’s history, as the Norwegian Nobel Committee clearly understands. Liu rightly wants to underline how far his country has to go to secure the basic democratic freedoms of speech and association. But we also need to remember how far it has come. In the 1960s and 1970s, during the Cultural Revolution, a whole generation of intellectuals was uprooted. Millions were displaced. The situation today is very different in ways both heartening and discouraging. Now we can identify somewhere between 40 and 50 writers and bloggers whom the Chinese state has imprisoned simply for peacefully speaking their mind.

Of course, the number of those incarcerated represents a tiny fraction of those silenced by their example. A vast apparatus of government censorship — the "Great Firewall" — remains in place. We have to work to support those in the regime who can already see that this is not only wrong, but also counterproductive. Human rights are everybody’s business. And we can’t have the productive dialogue with China that it wants — and the world needs — if its government is abusing its own people. We outside need to hear all of China’s voices, just as the Chinese do.

As we honor and celebrate Liu’s more than two decades of peaceful work for human rights in China, though, he wouldn’t want us to forget that he is one among many. One of his many achievements was to participate in the creation of Charter 08, a document outlining the changes China needs to make if it is to become a real democracy. More than 10,000 people have signed this document in the last two years, despite the fact that Liu and many others of the 300-plus original signers have been arrested or harassed by the police.

And then there are people like Gao Zhisheng, the army veteran and human rights lawyer who hasn’t been seen since this April. Gao — whose struggle to achieve an education began in a cave in Shaanxi province, where he was born to a peasant family — has been tortured and imprisoned in the past. And all because he has learned the law, committing great volumes of the Chinese legal code to his formidable memory, and used it to fight corrupt officials and the suppression of religious minorities. While we celebrate Liu, let’s also ask the Chinese government where Gao is and what has happened to him.

Or take Chen Guangcheng, another self-taught lawyer. Chen is blind, but he too has used the courts to defend the rights of ordinary rural people. He didn’t learn to read until he was in his 20s. But once he did, he filed a lawsuit drawing attention to the suffering of women forced into abortions by officials in Linyi county in Shandong province. So he, too, has been imprisoned. He was released after a four-year sentence just a month ago. Naturally, he is still under surveillance. Let’s make sure he also gets our support.

We need to help the Chinese government to see that these people are not, as the regime’s spokesmen keep insisting, ordinary criminals, but national treasures. They are seeking to give voice to the aspirations of millions of people. We need to help the Chinese Communist Party understand what it took a long history of struggle for us to learn in the Western world: A government that cannot hear from its people cannot govern well. My friend Amartya Sen, an economics Nobel laureate, has shown, in essence, that famines don’t occur in democracies. A government that hears its people can serve them better. Democracy makes some things more difficult — but mostly they’re things, like corruption and the abuse of human rights, that ought to be difficult.

There’s actually a long history of outsiders helping China’s leaders make moral advances. In the late 19th century, many among the literati who governed the country were persuaded to abandon the 1,000 year old practice of foot-binding, in part through a productive dialogue with Protestant missionary critics. That dialogue worked, I believe, because the critics took the trouble to understand China’s traditions and show that their concern for China grew not out contempt for its civilization, but out of a profound and informed respect.

It’s my privilege to be the current president of the PEN American Center, one of the 145 PEN International centers around the world, members of the literary community working together to support free expression and international cultural exchange. In our work in support of Liu Xiaobo, we are guided at every step by our colleagues in the Independent Chinese PEN Center, insiders who are working, as he has done, to serve the cause of freedom in their country. With their guidance, we are able to participate from outside China in shaping its development. We can do so in part because the Chinese, like all people, want to be respected in the community of nations. Yet such full-hearted respect is denied them when the regime denies the rights of its own people, and that forces government officials to deal with the fact that they are denying themselves the respect they need.

Yesterday, a Chinese exile told me that what she feels when she reads about the abuses of people like Liu is shame. We have to work with China’s human rights community to lift that burden of shame, so that the Chinese can have the respect of all of us because they have done what it takes to deserve it. Honor and shame are powerful motivators. Honoring Liu Xiaobo supports him in his work. But the shame of what the government of China is doing to him is driving many of his fellow citizens to line up alongside him.