Liao Yiwu on human rights, universal values and Chinese culture

’There should be a neighbouring state within sight, and the voices of the fowls and dogs should be heard all the way from it to us, but I would make the people to old age, even to death, not have any intercourse with it.‘ Laozi 老子

‘Even though the next country is so close that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking, they are content to die of old age without ever having gone to see it.‘ Laozi 老子 (translation by Stephen Mitchell)

When Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull embarked on his inaugural thirty-six-hour visit to China on 14 April 2016, he had one key objective: to maximise opportunities for Australian businesses under the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (CHAFTA) which had come into effect on 20 December 2015. The visit was, by all accounts, successful and tension-free, focused as it was on developing Australia-China bilateral relations in mutually beneficial ways. On the topic of China’s island building and military expansion in the South China Sea, Turnbull highlighted the need for territorial disputes to be resolved peacefully ‘in accordance with international law’. However, several articles published outside China noted that Turnbull carefully avoided any mention of the Chinese government’s tightened censorship and continuing crackdown on rights activists and human rights lawyers. As one commentator saw it, the prime minister’s circumvention of this topic was understandable for he was defending ‘the best interests of Australia’. To put the same thing differently, Australia must not offend its giant number-one trading partner to the north if it wishes to become ‘a small part of the China dream’.

However, the exiled writer and social critic Liao Yiwu sees the failure of foreign heads of state to challenge the Chinese government’s abuse of human rights as amounting to a triumph for Chinese authoritarian politics. In the essay below, he writes that it shows ‘the democratic West’ as having ‘shrunk back to the point where it can hardly retreat any further’. The governments of countries like Australia that have become highly involved in trade with China are inevitably forced to consider the economic costs that might result from formally censuring China on human rights abuses. The fact that the topic is now mostly sidestepped at meetings between Chinese and foreign leaders is indicative of such pragmatic considerations at work, including the consideration that censuring the Chinese government is, in any event, unlikely to cause it to behave differently. The importance of human rights, however, is glaringly evident to Chinese citizens who have protested against state injustice and abuses of power, defended their own rights or the rights of others, and whose stories of persistence in the face of repression are increasingly known to a socially engaged, global reading public.

We thank Liao Yiwu and his translator Matthew Robertson for this contribution to the China Story. – Gloria Davies on behalf of the editors

Liao Yiwu first attracted public attention for his 1989 poem ‘Massacre’, which he wrote in defiant response to the state’s armed purge of the student protest movement in Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989. (Estimates of the number of people killed in the streets surrounding the square range from several hundred to several thousand, but the exact figure remains to this day unknown). The poem landed Liao in jail in 1990. He wrote prolifically following his release in 1994 and was subjected to frequent police harassment. He was detained on several occasions. In 2011, he fled China and settled in Berlin. The outright ban on Liao’s writings in the People’s Republic since 1990 has meant that he is known mainly outside China. Liao’s essays, interviews, stories and poems have been collected into anthologies published in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Three of these anthologies have appeared in English translation: The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up (2008), God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China (2011) and For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison (2013)

Matthew Robertson, a journalist and translator, is the China news editor at Epoch Times in New York City.

Editorial note: In mainland China, ‘Western universal values’ and ‘traditional Chinese culture’ are politically loaded terms. China’s Communist party-state has always feared the contagion of ideas from what it decries as the capitalist West. In 2013, it banned what the official discourse refers to as ‘universal values’ and ‘Western values’ from both public culture and university classrooms. The ban remains in place. In the name of building ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’, however, the government has encouraged the promotion of ‘traditional Chinese culture’ since 1982. The last three and a half decades have seen a dramatic rise in university-based research on Confucianism and other schools of early Chinese thought as well as a plethora of courses, popular works and TV and radio programs on ancient Chinese wisdom.


Western Universal Values and Traditional Chinese Culture

Liao Yiwu 廖亦武  (translated by Matthew Robertson)

Liao Yiwu

Liao Yiwu

In the late 1990s Liu Xiaobo 刘晓波, who would later become the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, sent me a letter through his family. It was after he had been released from jail for the third time and was still under tight surveillance. The letter referred to the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, and the rapidity with which the populace had committed it to forgetfulness. ‘Because of debilitating fear’, he wrote, ‘the social elites who had once led, or attempted to lead, a democratic movement all simply fell silent.’

‘There’s nothing inevitable in history’, he continued. ‘The infant birth in a manger to a peasant family 2,000 years ago—Jesus, who would later be nailed to a cross—was even more a matter of accident. The elevation of mankind comes about because of, and relies on, these random comings-into-being. We can’t depend on the masses for their collective conscience; instead, we depend on the moral greatness of an individual to galvanize them. Especially for our people, even more so do they need a moral giant. The ability to inspire through just one act, to awaken vast moral resources, is limitless. Such would have held, for instance, had Fang Lizhi 方励之 walked out of the US Consulate; had Zhao Ziyang 赵紫阳 continued forceful resistance after he was removed from office; or had Bei Dao 北島 refused to leave China. The silence and forgetfulness in the wake of the Tiananmen Massacre owes in large part to the fact that we’ve had no moral giant who has bravely stepped forward.’

I rubbed the papers between my fingers, standing, deep in thought, in the frigid breeze of my hometown. At the time, Internet access was limited and it took about a week for a letter to travel from Beijing to Chengdu. The journey the other way took two days and nights on a hard train. On 4 June 1989, these two cities separated by thousands of miles—as well as dozens of other major cities in China—all saw mass street protests followed by violent suppression. The only difference was the death toll: around 3,000 people died in Beijing, and around ten in Chengdu. Fear set in the bones of the public as tens of thousands were arrested. Liu Xiaobo and myself were among them.

After I was released, I began roaming China performing poetry and flute. Liu Xiaobo began drafting his Open Letter. The third time he was jailed, it was because he had written a letter to the authorities titled ‘Draw a Lesson from the Tiananmen Massacre; Advance Democracy and the Rule of Law’ ‘汲取六四血的教训,推进民主与法制进程’. I was also a signatory and was jailed for twenty days for the trouble. As soon as I was freed, I called Liu Xia 刘霞, Liu Xiaobo’s wife. There was no answer. I then called our friend Zhong Zhong 忠忠, who searched everywhere for her, and finally called back. That night I secretly wrote: ‘This morning Zhong Zhong found Liu Xia. She cried throughout our call, repeating only one sentence: “They won’t let me see him.” I did my best, but failed to come up with anything that was halfway comforting.’

I wrote in my Tiananmen memoir, in what would be published in English and German as For a Song and a Hundred Songs 为了一首歌和一百首歌: ‘Someone just disappears like that; and years later, miraculously comes back. How many times will this go on? Faced with so many tribulations, I can’t write poems anymore, perhaps because I’ve never read in any poem the dread of fate I feel at this moment. Liu Xiaobo vigorously resisted this dread; he added himself to the catalogue of numerous other historical precedents of the same kind. Equipped with a grand reputation, a wide circle of friends, and an acute political sensibility, he could have escaped, but didn’t. He’d already been imprisoned twice. This time he might have been sent to Heilongjiang in the frigid north where, just across the river, would have been the Soviet Union’s “Far East Area”. It had all the flavor of the Decembrist revolutionaries.’

The most recent gesture for which Liu Xiaobo did prison time was his drafting of the petition ‘Charter 08’, an attempt to talk sense to the authorities.[1] It was a mild document meant to help China make a gradual transition to democracy. The first group of signatories numbered 303, encompassing almost all intellectuals inside and outside the Party system who were possessed of independent thought. I was also a signatory. Liu Xiaobo’s role model was the great Czech politician Václav Havel. The origin of ‘Charter 08’ can be directly traced to ‘Charter 77’ drafted by Havel and others during the Prague Spring. For all that, the dictators of China were far more malicious than their erstwhile Czech counterparts. I remember that Havel was also imprisoned on four occasions, from a few months to four years. But the last time [2009] Liu Xiaobo was sentenced, it was for eleven years, and he’s in prison to this day. Not long after her husband was jailed, Liu Xia was interviewed secretly by the well-known documentary filmmaker Ai Xiaoming 艾晓明. At one point, Ai asked her: ‘Did you know when the disaster was about to descend?’

‘I saw it coming early on’, Liu Xia responded. ‘From the time that the first draft of Charter 08 appeared in my home, to when Xiaobo threw himself into revising it, I just knew that something terrible was going to happen.’

‘Did you read it?’

‘I had no interest in doing so. But I knew there’d be big trouble. I tried to tell Xiaobo, but it was no use. I could only do what I’d done in the past: patiently wait for calamity to descend.’

Despite the fact that Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize [in 2010]; despite the fact that 100 other Nobel laureates and over 400,000 people concerned about human rights signed petitions calling for his release, the Chinese government paid no heed. They not only kept him in prison, but also put Liu Xia under house arrest. Because she was shut off from the world for so many years, she developed serious clinical depression. She suffered a heart attack at one point, which almost killed her. It was only recently that I got to talk to her on the phone.

It was also not until recently that I saw Ai Weiwei 艾未未, known for using his art to rebel against dictatorship, in Berlin. We held a public dialogue at the Berlin Philharmonic. Ai remarked that a distinctive feature of dictatorships is that they make each person feel hopeless and therefore powerless to change anything at all in society. I dissented. I said that 1989 certainly wasn’t like that: in dozens of cities across China, millions of people took to the streets to demand democratic reforms. Each of us felt that we had great power. Even though the tanks rolled toward us, even though 200,000 armed troops stormed through and many protesters were killed, we had indeed resisted. Our resistance was recorded by countless Western journalists on site, and it was spread throughout the world. It can be said that many of the major changes in the world—the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany; successful democratic transitions in Poland and the Czech Republic; the disintegration of the former Soviet Union; the end of the Cold War—all started with the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The people of China used their blood and their lives to prise away the first block in this great historic shift.

Ai Weiwei let out a sigh. So many brave people are now either holding their silence or are in jail. The dictatorship hasn’t changed and, what is more, China’s economy under this dictatorship has taken off like a rocket. Since the start of the twenty-first century, the world has needed the Chinese market and so the whole world has modified its stance toward the Chinese government, lest they forfeit the opportunity to make money in China.

So money is what has replaced the street politics of 1989: it’s become the religion of the Chinese people, the secret to the Communist Party’s success in brainwashing them. In The Corpse Walker 吆屍人, I documented this process of brainwashing and disillusionment and in Bullets and Opium 子弹鸦片, I documented how the brave warriors who stopped military vehicles in 1989 were jailed for years and then how, when they were released, they were forgotten and abandoned by a society that was ruled by money. Deng Xiaoping, who gave the order for the slaughter [in 1989], embarked three years later on his Southern Tour to Shenzhen, announcing that ‘poverty isn’t socialism’. He enthusiastically promoted opening markets and bringing in foreign capital. Deng said that this was ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’. But actually, this had nothing to do with the left-wing socialism found in the West—instead it was ‘dictatorship capitalism’.

A key feature of dictatorship capitalism is the unrestrained exploitation of the entire country’s resources. As long as you have a little bit of power, you can make a fortune overnight. And so corruption became the norm and the corrupt values of ‘Chinese characteristics’ spread across the world. Many Western businessmen, politicians, professors and experts found that they were like fish in water in China’s corrupt environment. They couldn’t lavish enough praise on this wonderful China which had made them rich. Thus, while the dictatorship was repressing Tibetans and Uighurs, persecuting Falun Gong practitioners, demolishing houses that belonged to peasants for urbanisation and putting dissidents in prison, it also held a most successful Olympic Games in 2008. Then on 3 September 2015, it displayed an enormous number of military weapons at a parade. The Russian dictator Putin and Miloš Zeman, the Czech leader known for admiring dictatorships, both appeared on the rostrum of Tiananmen, where the blood of the people had once been spilt.

For over two decades, the Chinese government’s strategy has been to embrace Western capitalism for economic development while rejecting Western universal values politically. It has always treated freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law as its greatest enemy. This is because it knows that universal values had awakened the Chinese people and equipped them with the power they displayed in 1989. However, faced with the temptations of the China market, many Western governments, in order to stave off global economic recession, have wavered and retreated. When scores of government-led Western business groups went to China, no one dared to broach the topic of human rights with the Chinese government. That would mean the loss of all their purchase orders and access to that big fat market. Even US President Barack Obama, himself a Nobel laureate, was in retreat. He did not dare to bring up with his Chinese counterpart the fact that his fellow Nobel Peace Prize laureate – the only one in the world to be locked up – continues to languish in jail. The French president Francois Hollande has not dared to utter the two words ‘human rights’. When demands for ‘true universal suffrage’ were made during Hong Kong’s umbrella revolution, high-profile support came from the German president Joachim Gauck but the English Prime Minister David Cameron, despite British rule over Hong Kong for nearly a century, pretended to be deaf and stayed silent.

The top leader of China’s Communist Party Xi Jinping said: ‘First, we haven’t sent refugees your way; second, we haven’t exported our ideology. We Chinese have our own traditional culture and a “value-outlook with Chinese characteristics.”’ Many Westerners see things Xi Jinping’s way. They think that Western capitalism is very suitable for China but that universal values such as liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law are most unsuitable because they do not fit with the structure of traditional Chinese culture. Now what are they referring to as ‘traditional culture’ is something that appeared after 1949, when Mao Zedong, whose rule is on par with that of Hitler and Stalin, founded this modern dictatorship based on a ‘tradition of brainwashing’. There is no traditional culture to speak of.

In the early years of the People’s Republic, Mao unleashed a land reform campaign that resulted in the deaths of between two and four million so-called ‘landlords’ and completely eliminated the educated elite in rural areas. This cut China off from the traditional culture that has developed over thousands of years under weak central control, epitomised in the saying ‘The heavens are high and the emperor is far away’. Following land reform, Mao’s political mobilisation campaigns thoroughly remolded the Chinese people.

So what is traditional Chinese culture anyway?

Laozi said: ‘And even though the next country is so close that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking, they are content to die of old age without ever having gone to see it.’ 邻国相望, 鸡犬之声相闻, 民至老死, 不相往来. Confucius said: ‘What a pleasure to have a friend come from afar.’ 有朋自远方来, 不亦乐乎. This is the Utopia of world peace: a country the size of a village, where you can climb a mountain and espy your neighbour; where you can hear the sounds of each other’s dogs and roosters; where the ordinary folk, content with their lot and living in peace, don’t even bother travelling about to neighbouring countries. But if people from abroad come to visit, everyone is still delighted to receive them—isn’t this like many small European states?

Confucius also said: ‘Let the king be a king, the minister a minister, the father a father and the son a son.’ 君君, 臣臣, 父父, 子子. The meaning is that every person in society should maintain his own position and live in good moral order. Mencius went further in this scheme of prioritisation: ‘The people are the most important element in a nation; the state comes next; the sovereign counts for the least.’ 民为上, 社稷次之, 君为轻. The people are in the first place because, as another saying goes, ‘Water can carry the boat; it can also capsize the boat.’ 水可载舟, 亦可覆舟. The masses of people are like the vast ocean, able to carry the king of a country on it like a boat but also able to overthrow him.

The works of Qian Mu 钱穆, a great scholar from the Republican era, describe how the traditions of the Chinese people originate in their family and clan relationships, focusing on the historical continuity of traditional institutions. Traditional Chinese views of the state, especially in relation to national borders and territory, were all extremely vague. During the roughly 800 years of the Western Zhou dynasty, the emperor enfeoffed the rulers of over 200 states, and these states often didn’t even know where their exact borders lay. Ordinary folk would simply exit and enter their own state without realising it. Before the Western Zhou, the Xia and Shang dynasties lasted for thousands of years, and even earlier were the Yellow Emperor and the sage-kings of legend: Yao, Shun, and Yu. In those days the monarch, as well as his top officials, would cultivate the earth like the common folk, foraging and hunting as they needed. Anyone could find them and get them to mediate disputes. One story tells of Shun who decided one day that he no longer wanted to rule. He found a wise and holy man named Xu You and exhorted him to take over as king and to govern the country. As soon as Xu You 许由 heard the request he immediately went to wash out his ears in the river, saying that he’s never liked the word ‘power’ and for Shun to never ask him again.

At that time, Chinese people venerated Heaven, believing that God lived in Heaven, hidden from mortals even as he watched over everyone, making sure that we were virtuous and kind to one another. Confucius lived in a time of constant warfare between states, when the rites and rituals of the past were already in disarray. Kings wanted to expand their power, war was common, and ordinary people were dispossessed—just like the waves of refugees today. Confucius, therefore, looked to the past for an ideal society. To realise his ideals, he suffered persecution in his own hometown, went into exile at the age of fifty-six and travelled to a dozen states or more, returning home only at the age of seventy. In the last three years of his life he worked single-mindedly on cataloguing history to become the patron saint of all Chinese intellectuals thereafter. As death neared, Confucius, like the Daoist sage Zhuangzi, banged on a copper pot and sang a eulogy to China’s cultural tradition: ‘Mount Tai is crumbling! The temples are collapsing! The thinkers wither!’ 泰山要崩溃啊! 庙宇要坍塌啊! 哲人要枯萎啊! [2]

Socrates, who lived around the same time as Confucius, said: ‘The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our ways, I to die, and you to live. Which of these two is better only God knows.’

I’m thinking: Confucius and Socrates had given up all hope in the world 2,600 years ago. They both felt powerless. Yet after them, not only was human society not destroyed; it kept on progressing and gave rise to resplendent civilisations. We remember these ‘powerless lost-hopers’ and we remember their historic achievements created in boundless darkness. Are we, today, like them? Powerless and hopeless but continuing anyway, knowing we can’t succeed but nevertheless persisting?

It’s clear that Western universal values, Western concepts of liberty, democracy, the rule of law, as well as the genuine social-democratic systems of the West, don’t actually conflict with traditional Chinese culture. They can be combined in harmony, taking the good points from each and becoming an ideal future for humanity. The so-called ‘Chinese characteristics’ 中国特色 that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) emphasises are simply the Party’s own ‘dictatorship with capitalist characteristics’ 独裁资本主义特色 that goes against China’s traditional culture.

Today, as it encounters surging waves of refugees, as it faces the sinister success of the CCP around the world, the democratic West has shrunk back to the point where it can hardly retreat any further. The only way out is to once again push forward universal values—to strive in the years ahead to help every country that is still under a dictatorship to gradually make democracy, liberty, human rights, and the rule of law a reality.

Universal values know no national boundaries. The Chinese people currently face a pincer attack by the forces of both dictatorship and capitalism: the gap between the rich and the poor in China is unprecedented, environmental pollution cannot get any worse, and social conflict is incessant. The priceless gift of the West is the inspiration of a democratic system, which impelled so many people to take to the streets in 1989. A democratic system can guarantee the Chinese people a path to reconnect with their several-thousand-year-old traditions; it can effectively guarantee the culture of ‘loving one’s place of birth’ and allow exiles to return; and it can dispel the possibility of a Chinese refugee crisis that the world would not be able to handle, should society collapse or a civil war break out.

liao-yiwu-god-is-redIn July 2011, before I fled China, I wrote and published God is Red abroad. I traveled many mountain roads in Yunnan, Sichuan and elsewhere, interviewing many old Christians. I documented how, 150 years ago, Christian missionaries penetrated these extremely traditional, closed, and conservative areas, planting the seeds of faith. Many of the missionaries died young and were buried there. When I stood in front of their tombs— surrounded by villages where many of the local farmers had adopted the Christian names of their grandparents and great-grandparents – Jacob, Peter, Lucy, and David—I could not help being deeply moved. I’m not a Christian, but in this example I see a model of Western civilisation and Chinese tradition harmonizing as one. God, using the Satanic hands of the CCP, drove a startled and shocked people—like lost lambs—into His embrace. All gathered together to warm one another, praying as one to heal their trauma. When I interviewed Zhang Yingrong 张应榮, an eighty-five-year-old elder who has since passed away, he said: ‘If after 1949 there had not been such thorough expulsion of Western missionaries, banning of the Gospel, and the jailing and slaughter of hundreds of thousands of indigenous missionaries, then there’d be no post-1979 movement to re-establish the radiance of the crucifix.’ According to this line of reasoning, if there had been no terror and hopelessness under Communist rule, then the number of Christians and Catholics in China would not be increasing as it has, year after year, to the current reported eighty million.

But now, most Westerners who go to China—perhaps some are the descendants of those missionaries from 150 years ago—are all about making money. Many of them even sell out the values of their own forebears in order to make money, rolling in the mud with the wicked regime. In fact, just as I’m writing this essay, a Western sinologist living like a fish in water in the smog of Beijing, has come out saying: ‘The traditional values of the East and West differ; we mustn’t force our own notions of so-called liberty, democracy, human rights, and even God, on the Chinese people.’

‘Father, forgive them’, I once again hear Jesus saying from the Cross, ‘for they know not what they do.’

12 October 2015


The original essay appears here.

[1] For more information, see ‘China’s Charter 08’ translated by Perry Link, The New York Review of Books, 15 January 2009,

[2] The essay presents a colloquial version of this saying: 泰山其颓乎, 梁木其坏乎, 哲人其萎乎.