China’s conscience

No Enemies, No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems, by Liu Xiaobo, edited by Perry Link, Tienchi Martin-Liao and Liu Xia, Harvard, RRP£22.95, 400 pages

The final chapter of No Enemies, No Hatred, the selected essays and poems of Chinese Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, is possibly the most striking.

That is not because “Beijing No 1 Intermediate People’s Court Criminal Judgment No 3901” contains beautiful turns of phrase or offers a glimpse into the coruscating mind of one of China’s greatest dissident thinkers. The significance of this translated court document lies rather in how it reveals the paranoia and brutality of the authoritarian regime that handed Liu an 11-year prison sentence in 2009.

The heavy penalty for “incitement to subvert state power” was meted out for the words that appear in this book, words that to most readers would never come close to a normal definition of subversion or incitement. In “To Change a Regime by Changing a Society” (2006), one of the six essays adduced in his trial as evidence of his guilt, Liu explicitly argues against overthrowing the Chinese Communist party. “People who are pushing for a free and democratic China should concentrate on a gradual change in society and expect that this will eventually force a change in regime,” he writes.

This hardly sounds like sedition. But Chinese officials regularly describe Liu as a dangerous criminal who threatens the very foundations of the state. The conclusion many readers of this powerful and fascinating collection of Liu’s writings will reach is that those foundations are not as strong as the Chinese government likes to portray to the outside world.

Through the excellent translation and editing by Perry Link, they will also start to appreciate his historical and political importance and comprehend why he became the first Chinese citizen living in China to win a Nobel Prize. This came after he had already spent one year of his current sentence in prison and despite his once having bitterly derided the Chinese literati’s obsession with the honour.

Even for those unfamiliar with Chinese politics or the country’s human rights record, this book should appeal because of the moving poetry and beautifully written essays the editors have included. Some of the most poignant works are those relating to the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement and subsequent massacre.

At the age of 34, Liu was a key figure in those demonstrations and one of four famous intellectuals who persuaded the army to grant safe passage for the unarmed students still in the square on June 4 as the tanks rolled in. For his role as a “black hand” behind a “counter-revolutionary riot”, he spent more than 18 months in Qincheng, the prison for elite political prisoners, and has been sent back to prison and labour camps for his writings several times since. The idealism and outrage of the Tiananmen experience permeates all his work and he often refers explicitly to the massacre here.

In October 2010, when his wife informed him in prison that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize, he wept and dedicated it to the souls of those who died in 1989. The opening line of his “Final Statement”, which he read at his criminal trial in December 2009, stated that the Tiananmen massacre was “the major turning point in my life”; later in the same document he expressed his hope that he would “be the last victim in China’s long record of treating words as crimes”.

Alas, he was not, and in recent weeks the Chinese government has handed down a string of decade-long sentences to other prominent peaceful dissidents. As Liu said about his own sentence, their fates and those of the hundreds of other political prisoners languishing in Chinese jails “cannot bear moral scrutiny and will not pass the test of history”.

This book is an important part of that historical test and the best chance yet for those who cannot read Chinese to hear the voice of China’s conscience.

Jamil Anderlini is the FT’s Beijing bureau chief

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