2 Sinologists say Liu Xiaobo’s Death speaks to a dark vision for China

Historians in the News
tags: China, Xi Jinping, Liu Xiaobo



Gina Anne Tam is Assistant Professor of History at Trinity University, specializing in issues of identity and nationalism, with a particular emphasis on South China and Hong Kong. She has written for Foreign Affairs.  Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine. His most recent books are, as author, "Eight Juxtapositions: China Through Imperfect Analogies From Mark Twain to Manchukuo" (Penguin) and, as editor, "The Oxford Illustrated History of Modern China," to be published later this year.

... Today it is hard to recapture a sense that it once seemed possible that the mainland, not Taiwan, would exemplify most fully the Open China. The island country now has a robust democracy, while the continental one has taken no steps to introduce elections since the early 1990s. There are other striking contrasts as well. Taiwan has elected its first female president, while China’s highest political body, the Politburo Standing Committee, still has never had a female member. Taiwan’s courts have moved to legalize same-sex marriage, while mainland censors try to erase the presence of LGBTQ citizens from the Internet. Thirty years ago, it seemed entirely possible that it would be Deng’s China, not Chiang’s Taiwan, that would be more of a symbol for liberalization, hard as that can be to remember now.

Some commentators, in an effort to avoid despair in reacting to the darkness of recent events in the PRC, have claimed that the second Xi is moving his country toward a watershed moment that will somehow inevitably galvanize a turn towards global leadership. They ask, “when will China become more like Taiwan?,” implying that familiar Fukuyama end-of-history belief in the ultimate triumph of liberal democracy. This seems to us wishful thinking. It ignores many things, including the fact that many on the mainland see Taiwan’s current situation as far from ideal. Where some see achievements in social justice across the strait, nationalists proud of how the Closed China of the second Xi has been rising in the economic as well as geopolitical order see an island losing its allies. Where some see a robust democracy, other see a flagging economy increasingly dependent upon cross-strait trade and a political order marked by squabbles and rowdiness in the legislature. Where some ask, “When will the mainland be more like Taiwan?,” others ask, “Why would we want it to be?”

Recent global events have also been a boon to the second Xi and his supporters, as no China exists within a vacuum. It is not only Hong Kong and Taiwan that can be seen as flawed by many on the mainland—it is the entire Western tradition. Whereas US democracy seems hopelessly deadlocked and unable to pass basic legislation protecting health care and social safety nets, China’s authoritarian system has lifted millions of people out of poverty. And the election of Donald Trump, with his retreat from the global community and his crude, paranoid ways, can makes Xi seem calm and clear-eyed by comparison, especially when he speaks of things such as the need to protect the Paris climate-change accord.

Today it is easy to think that the only choices are to grasp at straws and hope that oppression will inevitably breed resistance, or accept that the second Xi now holds all the cards that matter, especially since he has paid only a small cost for Liu’s death in terms of international blowback. We are aware that many predictions that one or another factor—the coming of the Internet, the expansion of the middle class, the Arab Spring, you name it—would trigger liberalization of the mainland have been proven wrong, but we also see a mix of fragility as well as the obvious strengths in the Closed China of the second Xi. It can be hard to find solace just now, and to speak of signs of imminent change seems to give in to wishful thinking.

Thinking about the resilience of the dream of an Open China, though, we do find some basis for hope in words that the great writer Ursula Le Guin said about a different closed system. In accepting the National Book Award in 2014, Le Guin reminded listeners that, when current political traps seem “inescapable,” they should keep in mind that once “so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” It once seemed foolish to predict that Chiang’s son would begin a process that opened Taiwan. It may be that the human capacity to resist and change will yet surpass our expectations.




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