The Debate Around Liu Xiaobo

Against the Current, No. 150, January/February 2011

Au Loong-Yu

WE DO NOT entirely share the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s statement on its decision to award the Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, praising China for having “achieved economic advances to which history can hardly show any equal” but regretting that it is in breach of several international agreements on human rights and China’s own constitution concerning these rights.

The Committee lauds China’s economic achievement without noting that labor’s share of the national income has dropped, from an already very low level, by 15% over the last 20 years. This could only be done with harsh political repression chiefly targeting workers, who constitute the majority of the population.

The statement further praises Liu as having been “a strong spokesman for the application of fundamental human rights also in China. He took part in the Tiananmen protests in 1989; he was a leading author behind Charter 08, the manifesto of such rights in China.”

What Does Liu Represent?

We have written some time ago that Charter 08, while supportable whenever it advocates basic civil liberties, is limited by its call for the privatization of farm land and further privatization of state-owned enterprises.(1) This call suggests that the Charter’s authors regard turning over public property to private hands at the expenses of working people a kind of “human right.” This, along with the obvious neglect of labor rights, leads us to believe that the Charter is far from being for working people.

Although most liberals welcome the award as encouragement for fighting for democracy in China, there are people who claim that Liu is not the proper candidate. In a petition to the the Norwegian Nobel Committee, a group of exiled dissidents wrote that they thought Liu is not the appropriate candidate because he has not been standing firm in upholding human rights, and they have even practically cooperated with the authorities by inappro is a frequentpriately praising the Chinese Communist Party’s human rights rhetoric.

These critics look like they are more radical than Liu, but they share with Liu all the prejudices and fear of the working people; they also support privatization. In this sense these liberal intellectuals are more neoliberal than liberal in the traditional sense.

They seek privatization and marketization, and the creation of a bourgeoisie, as a way to weaken the despotic rule of the bureaucracy — when in fact this only serves to strengthen it by making large sections of the bourgeoisie continue to depend on the bureaucracy. Even after privatization the former remains tied to the latter in various ways, first and foremost in the intimate relationship between the two, as most of those who bought state-owned enterprises were party cadres or former officials.

In the final analysis, entrepreneurs find the repressive regime a necessary evil to keep the potentially rebellious workers in check. Since working people account for the overwhelming majority of the Chinese population, the new business class has little interest in the liberal intellectuals’ program of moderate political liberalization (the call for respect of the law and the constitution). They have no incentive to pursue “universal human rights.” For them, the choice to support this repressive regime is politically more practical than the program of the liberal intellectuals.

Contemporary Chinese capitalism has no room for “capitalism with a human face.” It has to be a kind of barrack capitalism, if it, as a latecomer, wants to compete globally.

Hence the supposed constituency — the bourgeoisie — of these liberal intellectuals continues to look to the CCP, not to these intellectuals, as its political leadership. That is why these liberal intellectuals remain isolated and weak.

Liu Xiaobo’s winning the Peace Prize should be considered a boost to the liberals’ cause. It raises Liu to star level and for the first time gives the loose network of liberals a national spiritual leader with global fame, precisely something that the CCP wants to avoid. Yet this push is also limited: Liberals can only capitalize on Liu’s new status when the party and the bourgeoisie run into serious social and political crisis.

How Left Are the Left Critics?

On the other hand, on the Utopia (Wuyouzhixiang) website, which is well known for being associated with some of the “new leftists,” posted articles echoed the authorities’ attack on Liu, suggesting that he is an agent of U.S. imperialism. One author, Xibeifeng, denies that Liu’s sentences has anything to do with freedom of speech, arguing that Liu’s advocacy for Charter 08 is as criminal as a drunk driver demanding freedom to violate the rules of traffic.(2)

Two professors in Hong Kong, Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong, argue that “there was no need to imprison Liu…Rather, there has only been a need to bring to light Liu’s self-proclaimed goals. If most Chinese, especially the non-elite majority, knew about his prescribed path for China, they would turn away from him as from someone with ignoble things on offer.”(3) By this they mean that Liu’s pro-U.S. and pro-market positions are not beneficial to the Chinese people.

In a certain sense it is true, but Sautman and Yan lose proportion in their accusation. If Liu’s advocacy for privatization should be criticized, then by logic the CCP must be treated more harshly for pushing through two gigantic waves of privatization — first affecting most state- and collectively-owned enterprises, resulting in more than 50 million workers being dismissed, then a second wave of privatization which targets urban lands, resulting in price hikes in the property market that most cannot afford.

While Liu boldly calls for privatization but without the power and money to implement it, the CCP has acted boldly but silently (privatization is still a banned word).

Curiously, Sautman and Yan do not criticize the CCP except to remark that “there was no need to imprison Liu,” as if their only error was a slightly superfluous misstep, rather than infringing on his human rights.

The same goes for Sautman and Yan’s criticism of Liu’s support of the U.S. war in Iraq. In their second Guardian article they accused Liu’s “stand for war not peace.”(4) We do not share Liu’s position on the Iraq war, but again our criticism must be fair. While his support of the war carried no weight in China or the international community, the government, with its veto power, abstained from the UN Security Council vote in 1991, allowing Washington and its allies a certain UN legitimacy in the drive to war.

Done in the sacred name of expelling the invader from Kuwait, the abstension resulted in allowing another invader — the United States — to enjoy a more dominant role in the region, and led to the second Gulf war in 2003. If Liu should be indicted for his views, should not the Chinese government also be criticized for its action?

“Democracy is Bad for You”

More troubling, Sautman and Yan went even further when they condemned Liu “who has long been financed by the U.S. government’s National Endowment for Democracy, proposes an instant shift to electoral democracy as the solution to China’s problems.” We do not share Liu’s pro-American government position, but it has no bearing on the question of whether “electoral democracy” is desirable.

Sautman and Yan see electoral democracy as bad for China because “states that have made the transition to electoral democracy at low levels of wealth (and China is still very much a developing country) have low levels of development and considerable instability… In many cases the transition to electoral democracy in developing countries worsens rights.”

In making this argument, they are supporting the CCP’s continual denial of basic democratic rights. We believe free elections are a right of the Chinese people; the CCP has owed this to the people for too long.

Apart from the moral imperative behind the demand for democracy, there is also an issue of political necessity. It is necessary, now more than ever, to put the CCP under democratic control before one can seriously talk about controlling the plundering of public wealth by the bureaucracy. Any attempt to minimize the importance of democratic rights, including free elections, justifies the absolutism of a one-party state.

Indeed, whereas the CCP justified its despotic rule by saying that people do enjoy all rights enshrined in the constitution, Sautman and Yan provided the CCP with a more sophisticated argument by telling people that fighting for electoral democracy jeopardizes their own interests. This is especially harmful given that citizen awareness of popular sovereignty and democratic rights is at its all time low since the 1911 revolution.

Recolonization a Real Threat?

A common trait that runs through those associated with the Utopia website is their ever stronger statist and nationalist arguments. They fall into the false dichotomy of state versus market: In rightly opposing the privatization of public assets, they embrace the state as the only viable vehicle to fight privatization — and not only the state in general, but the one-party state that pushed forward privatization in the first place.

They often argue, in the light of the 150 years of Chinese history when China was invaded and humiliated by imperialism, that the greatest danger at all times for China is recolonization by Western or Japanese influence, not only in an economic sense but also a political sense — hence they echo the CCP’s repeated alarm regarding the specter of western-backed “color revolutions” [e.g. the Green Revolution in the Ukraine — ed.]

There is a grain of truth in this argument, but only a grain. There have been features of dependent accumulation in China’s economy since the 1990s, in relation to the Western and Japanese economies, and correspondingly there have been growing sections of the bureaucracy and the new rich who have acquired features of a comprador mentality. Since 2003, however, the bureaucracy finally settled for a more independent economic growth, with special emphasis on “autonomous innovation.”

Features of dependent accumulation in the economy still exist, but are not dominant. For instance, the two trillion U.S. dollar exchange reserves which China accumulates are both a sign of dependent accumulation and a factor in the rise of China. It is a sign of dependent accumulation because it is a result of over-reliance on exports, made possible only by surrendering China’s resources and surplus value to the West and Japan. However, it also enables the CCP to ambitiously import modern foreign techniques and to enjoy a strong bargaining position in relation to global competition.

Henceforth there is even less chance that China will be recolonized economically in the strict sense. As an economy ranking second in the world, any suggestion that China is under threat from economic recolonization makes no sense. The major threat for Chinese working people today is less recolonization than the plundering of the wealth by the ruling party, and the resulting breakdown of social connections.

As to the threat of a “color revolution,” again it is grossly exaggerated. There are no signs at all that the United States has enough support in China so as to put a color revolution on the agenda, nor is it true that the party-state is so weak that even the smallest political liberalization will end up in its losing power.

Despite economic decentralization since the market reform, the CCP’s grip over society only grows politically stronger. There was, and still remains, no real civil society, no real social movement, no organized opposition. In the distant furute if China ever has a color revolution like those in Kyrgyzstan, it will be not because of people like Liu Xiaobo or because of free elections, but because the party-state is hated so much by the people that they think any other party taking power will be better.

This leads back to the basic question that nationalists try to avoid: The chief threat today in China is not foreign aggression, politically or economically, but the CCP dictatorship, a dictatorship which is corrupt to the core and armed to the teeth. It must also be noted that it is also a dictatorship which benefits the U.S. ruling class.

Without this regime, it would not have been possible to hold back both wages and the Chinese workers’ movement for so long. The debate between the liberals who support Liu Xiaobo and the nationalists is essentially a false debate. Neither Washington nor the Chinese party-state is a choice for working people.

Dec. 20, 2010


  1. “A Human Right Charter that Excludes the Working People,” Also published in Against the Current 143, Nov.-Dec. 2009.
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  2. Liu Xiaobo huojiang shi xinzhiminzhuyi zai zhongguo zouxiang zhibian de biaozhi (Liu Xiaobo being Awarded with the Peace Prize Signifies Neo-Colonialism in China Now Reaches Qualitative Changes),
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  3. “Liu Xiaobo Deserves an Ig Nobel Peace Prize,” South China Morning Post, Oct. 12, 2010.
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ATC 150, January-February 2011

1 comment

  1. While I agree with you on most of your critical views on Liu and his critics in this article, I do want to point out that the concern about condoning or promoting colonialism isn’t just a concern about the recolonization of China. China has been playing an increasingly significant role in world economy and politics, and it’s worrisome to see that Chinese liberal intellectuals — not just Liu, as I have personally argued with some others — praise Western colonialism and imperialism because such view can actually affect China’s foreign policies and economic policies. Maybe it’s not likely that China is recolonized, but it’s not as unlikely that China could become a colonizing force or a supporter of, say, US’s imperialist foreign policies. You have noted in the article that China as a member of the security council didn’t try to stop the US’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Imagine what it would be like if China becomes a force that supports such behaviors as long as its interests (or the interests of the bourgeoisie and/or the bureaucracy) dictate.

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