Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Chinese dissident writer, is dying of liver cancer. He’s been in prison since 2009, his “crime” being the publication of a charter calling for political reform. But he’s not a hero to his countrymen. Most Chinese have only vaguely heard of Liu if they’re aware of him at all; those who know about him, in my experience, speak of him with distaste. “He should be grateful that the government is giving him medical care for free!” one acquaintance posted online.
There was a time when I was shocked by the disdain middle-class Chinese, even those with relatively liberal views, showed toward dissidents. The first impulse always seemed to be to find a way to blame them. All the agency was placed on the victims, not on the people who arrested, tortured, and imprisoned them; the system was just the system, after all.
In time, though, I came to see it as a psychological survival measure, an authoritarian-adapted version of something that prevails everywhere; the just-world hypothesis. That’s the belief, consciously or otherwise, that when things go wrong for people there must be a sensible reason behind it. He got cancer because he didn’t pray enough. She got raped because she went to a neighborhood where she should have known better. He should have been more deferential to that police officer.
People believe in a just world as a psychic defense mechanism against the obvious and monstrous injustice of the universe. In reality, none of us are God’s favorite children, and at any moment disease, accident, or disaster could snatch everything we love away from us. But we pretend that we are not spiders hanging by a thread over the fire, and look for ways to justify the suffering of others to maintain our own blithe conviction that we’ll be OK.
In China, it’s not just an unjust universe that people need to explain away, but an even more immediate unjust government. This isn’t the argument that a few Chinese intellectuals make — that China has to put stability and the social order above justice and freedom. (Even then, they tend to frame it in abstract terms, not in the realities of broken fingers and imprisoned journalists.) It’s an attempt to turn an unpalatable event into a psychologically acceptable narrative — not so much to deny the injustice, as to shrug it away as the fault of the victim. It turns the state into a force of nature, not a moral actor; going up against it is as foolish and pointless as waving an umbrella in a thunderstorm.
Many Chinese, like other residents of authoritarian states, don’t want to confront what officialdom could do to them at any moment. When the government crushes people, then, it must be the victim’s fault. They should have known what would happen. They shouldn’t have been so arrogant. They should have realized who they were up against.
That’s why the government has always been relatively comfortable with talking about Liu and others who directly and forthrightly challenge the system. Indeed, Liu’s Nobel Peace Prize saw a concerted blast of Chinese media coverage (after a week of silence where the system processed the news). People like Liu are potential object lessons; cross the line and we will destroy you — and it’ll be your own fault.
The government gives the impression, and much of the public seems to believe, the lines in question are clearly drawn. The problem is they’re often invisible until you accidentally blunder across them. My friend Jimmy’s uncle didn’t know that his construction company was bidding against a mafia run by local officials and gangsters — until they kidnapped him, took him to the top of an unfinished building, chopped off his legs and left him to bleed to death, while their official counterparts arrested his brother on false charges.
The vast bulk of the damage done by the Chinese state is to people who did nothing except be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And these are by far the most dangerous injustices, from the government’s perspective. If the public is ever stirred from its apathy, it will be because of ordinary victims, not outspoken dissidents. That’s why the many prosaic encounters with the Chinese government that result in tragedy are permitted only a mayfly lifespan in the Chinese media; a brief burst of attention in the aftermath, followed by a swift closure of discussion of the topic.
Political persecution, on the other hand, is given a proud public place. When the government decided to crush China’s flickering, hopeful online life in 2013, prominent blogger Charles Xue was made to confess to his crimes as a Weibo activist on live television. Talking with an intelligent and liberal colleague after the televised confession, she seemed unfazed by the crudity and echoes of the Cultural Revolution. “He must have had warnings,” she said.
Or take Falun Gong. In the initial stages of persecution, there was a lot of public sympathy for the group; why were the police harassing nice Mrs. Liu, who did tai chi in the park? But when Falun Gong’s leaders pushed the group toward direct confrontation with the state, surrounding the central palace of Zhongnanhai, where the leadership resides, and setting themselves on fire in protest, that sympathy evaporated.
It’s tempting to see some deeper cultural current in this. The doctrine of karma has a long history in China; the idea that your fate has ultimately been determined by past sins, if not present ones. (When British football coach Glenn Hoddle was sacked for saying that disability was the fault of previous existences, he was expressing a perfectly common — if loathsome — religious view.) But it’s not as if Christianity doesn’t have its own perverse theologies of suffering, from original sin and the fallen world to the sociopathic smugness of the modern U.S. prosperity gospel.
Westerners in China aren’t immune to it either. I remember conversations in the expat world when Peter Dahlin, a Swedish human rights activist, was arrested, deprived of his medicine, and forced to confess on live television. He’d been too intemperate. He’d crossed a line he should have known about. Surely the same thing couldn’t happen to us, who stayed within limits we were sure would be respected? (In fairness, Dahlin was given to playing Bob Dylan loudly in the small hours of the morning, which in a just world surely would be severely punished.)
In Liu’s case, his past writings were dragged out to use against him. He’d written that it would take “300 years of colonialism” for China to become as civilized as Hong Kong, been an enthusiastic supporter of the U.S. war on terror, and sometimes been willfully blind about the West’s failings. That was dragged out as an excuse by many Chinese intellectuals — and some Western apologists. At no point did they explain how intemperate speech or naivety justified decades of persecution and imprisonment — it was enough to point the finger, to come up with an excuse, and to sleep comfortably at night.
One of the strangest ways that people talked about Liu and other dissidents like the ebullient Ai Weiwei, I found, was as though their actions were really some kind of cunning career move, made to get them attention or money from the West. Editorials in the state-operated Global Times described the democrats as “having made a failed bet.” In part, this was because of government propaganda that did everything it could to link internal dissent to the ever-present “foreign forces.”
But it was also a way of reducing everything to the same cynicism with which the rest of Chinese society operates. Pretend that taking on the system was done for Western gold, rather than principle, and you could justify the compromises and corruption that you took part in every day. It was especially prevalent among those who had been young and once idealistic in the 1980s. They’d compromised, so why the hell couldn’t those stiff-necked bastards? Everybody else — or at least, the people in their class: urban, educated professionals — had done so well in the years afterward, after all.
One day, I hope, Liu will be remembered as one of many martyrs over the centuries for a better, fairer, kinder China. But that’s a long way off. Right now, when he dies, most of his compatriots will shrug. What, after all, did he expect was going to happen?
Photo credit: BERIT ROALD/AFP/Getty Images