'Truth spoken without moderation reverses itself'
This blog is a source for intellectual exploration. It includes a list of alternative resources and a source of free books. The placement of an article does not imply that I agree with it, merely that I found it thought-provoking. There are also poems and book reviews. Texts written by me are labelled. Readers are free to re-post anything they like.
Tuesday, July 17, 2012
China’s ‘Fault Lines’: Yu Jie On His New Biography of Liu Xiaobo
Yu Jie is one of China’s most prominent essayists and critics, with more than thirty books to his name. His latest work is a biography of his friend, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, that was published in Chinese in Hong Kong a few weeks ago. It is not the first time he has stirred up controversy in China. Yu first gained fame in 1998 at age twenty-five for his book Fire and Ice, a series of biting, satirical essays on contemporary society. Within two years, he was already blacklisted by most publishers. An intensely moralistic person, he also angered many Chinese intellectuals for arguing that they failed to match actions to words. In 2003, Yuconverted to Christianityand increasingly complemented his provocative writing with political activism of his own. He was an early signer of Charter 08, the landmark human rights manifesto, and in 2010 cemented his position as a leading political critic by writing a biography of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in which he refers to his subject as“China’s best actor.”Last year, Yu completed a rough draft of his biography of Liu Xiaobo, who is now serving an eleven-year prison sentence. Authorities warned Yu that he too would be jailed if the book was published and put him under house arrest for several months. In January, hefled Chinawith his wife and son for the United States, where he now resides.
Ian Johnson:How did you get to know Liu Xiaobo? Yu Jie: In 1998 my first book came out and he was in jail. His wife thought that he should see what young people were thinking. Young people were becoming critical and so she took it to him in prison. He had a lot of criticisms—and in fact my thinking then wasn’t too clear. But [the writer] Liao Yiwu was friends with Liu and very good friends with me. When Liu got out of jail, Liao thought it was a pity that we shouldn’t be friends so he introduced us to each other. We got along well from the start and we’d meet every two weeks or so. Our wives were also close friends.
After he was arrested, you decided to write the biography. What was your motivation? I want to explain his ideas. Not many know his work.
But some Western scholars know about Liu. Less than you would think. Andrew Nathan (of Columbia University) knows about him and Geremie Barmé wrote a great essay on him. But few do. It’s a strange situation.
In the West, if people know anything, they might think of him as conservative. For example, he supported Reagan and, later, George W. Bush’s Iraq War. He was very similar in many ways to the Republicans. I felt I had to write this and explain his thinking and show why he’s like that. Why did he support the Iraq war? You can’t just put him in the European environment and say that everyone who supported that war was a bad person.
He thought of the war as an extension of his opposition to dictatorships. Yes, and he wasn’t alone. Havel also supported it, and Michnik too. So there are very confusing issues and they can’t be simplified. But I want to make him a living person, not a god. Liu Xiaobo had a lot of problems. He had a lot of girlfriends—that’s in the book too. After my son was born he talked to me about the effect of my work on my family. In 1989 his own son was six years old. Now that son is twenty-nine or so and lives in California but the family split and they never had anything to do with each other again.
So Liu Xiaobo talked to me about these things and how much pain all this had caused him. He later remarried but decided never to have another child because he didn’t want a child to have that kind of a life. I thought of this when writing his biography. A top public security official told me that if you write this you’ll be in big trouble. It’s the main reason I left China. I have a wife and ten-year-old child and couldn’t take the risk of hurting them. I wanted them to have a normal life.
How would you describe his ideas?
He’s similar to [Soviet dissident Andrei] Sakharov. He’s not just a critic of communism but also someone who promotes virtues and values. This is an important point because there are a lot of people who criticize the communists. Liu Xiaobo also has a constructive ideology too. That line—”I have no enemies”—is really important. It’s similar to Mandela. You look at how many problems blacks in South Africa had. It could have resulted in a lot of hatred, but Mandela tried to reconcile people, and I see Liu like that too.
China doesn’t have apartheid. No, China doesn’t have the racial component perhaps quite as much but it has fault lines, for example between country and city. The way that rural laborers are treated in the cities is similar to how blacks were treated in South Africa. If you don’t have an ideology like Liu’s to push for peaceful change, then change could result in violence.
For example, I see a big difference between him and Ai Weiwei. Western society is really interested in Ai. A lot of Western media write about Ai and gives him a place of importance. There’s a new movie about him too. I don’t think he is so important. He is an established artist and he has many theatrical actions that the media like to report about. I do strongly support some of the things he’s done, like the [accounting for the dead in the 2008 Sichuan] earthquake but a lot of his thoughts have problems.
Such as? There’s an example, and here Liu Xiaobo and I are in complete agreement, there was the case of Yang Jia. He killed some police officers in Shanghai. Ai Weiwei thought Yang Jia was a great hero. He really supported him and said it was understandable given what Yang had suffered. But Liu Xiaobo and I were among the few who said this was wrong. Yang had been wronged but it didn’t justify killing and the people he had killed weren’t even the ones who had hurt him.
Maybe China needs different kinds of people. It needs people like Ai to provoke. Perhaps, but if you’re comparing them, then Liu Xiaobo is much more important. He has a constructive side to his thinking. I think the Western media should report more on Liu and less on people like Ai. They place them on too high a pedestal..