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Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles talks with Tienchi Liao, writer, activist, and colleague of Liu Xiaobo
Ingles: Let’s remind our listeners of some of the dramatic turns that Liu Xiaobo was actually involved with in those days before the June 4th massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Ingles: He participated in a hunger strike didn’t he?
Ingles: Can you tell us more about that?
Liao: He participated in the hunger strike of this so called Four Gentleman’s, together with Zhou Dou, another young teacher in the university, and the singer Hou Dejian from Taiwan and another editor with the name Gao Xin. These four young men are called later: the Four Gentleman’s on Tiananmen Square.
Ingles: And what was the purpose of the strike? Was it to win confidence from the student protesters? Tell me more about that.
Liao: Yes. These four young men started their hunger strike on June 2nd and they drafted an announcement to tell people the reason why they started a hunger strike. They made four reasons. First of all, they said: “We have no enemies.” …And second, we want to reflect, we want to show our responsibilities as a Chinese citizen.
Then the third point they mentioned is that: “We do not go after the deaths; we go after the true life. We are looking for a true life in China.” So they want to show with this statement that they are not against the government or against the army, but they just want to show their free will. They want China to have its change; change against other unfair and wrong things, that happened in the recent years.
The fourth point is they mentioned that: “we are all citizens.” With this point I think they want to just remind the government (about their) basic rights. It’s not written, but they just mention: “we are citizens.” So with all these four points, it shows clearly that they don’t want to have direct confrontation with the government or with the authority, but they want to show their free will.
Ingles: Right. It doesn’t sound much like a militant uprising of the citizenry, but it sounds, very simply, that they want their voice heard.
Liao: Yes, it is. Maybe we should know that 20 years ago, at the end of 1980’s, the people in China, they are still, they stand still under the shock of the counterrevolution and they are still totally scared from the authority. Nobody dares to really criticize openly the authority or to make openly the strong protest. If they do the protest, they just say well, (there are) some corrupt officers, this and that. But they never really directly attack the Chinese Communist Party. This is an untouchable topic. So Liu Xiaobo and the others, they (were being) very strategic not to put themselves in danger or put other protest people in danger.
Ingles: So let’s go to the next chapter in that story. Of course things go horribly badly in Tiananmen Square, but Liu Xiaobo is instrumental in helping to keep it from getting much much worse and arranging for the peaceful escape of some of the students. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Liao: Yes. These four young men, they started their hunger strike on June 2nd. Several hours later, the situation becomes really severe on Tiananmen Square and he and also the other student leaders started to try to negotiate with the authority. But they don’t have the full authority because (there are) lots of students, they are tired and they are so excited, they just don’t follow any leaders words.
Ingles: Well it was just so much chaos, I can only imagine.
Liao: It’s lots of chaos. Nobody really has the authority to tell the people to calm down. We have to act collectively, let’s do it this and that way so that we can have a little bit more safety or we can get a certain guarantee from the authority that we can retreat. So nobody can persuade the students. So if they negotiate with the authority, the soldiers, the officers don’t believe them and if they talk to the students, the students don’t believe them that they can persuade the authority. So it was a very difficult role for him to play.
Ingles: So he was arrested and put in prison, expelled from his university, and his publications were banned. He was convicted of crimes against the State but released in 1991 and he was acknowledged for his actions to help limit the bloodshed there at Tiananmen Square. I guess he wrote and traveled for four years before being arrested yet again. So he was again in and out of prison, constantly under surveillance in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.
It seems important that we should talk about the lead-up to his most current arrest. In 2008, he participates in what’s known as: “Charter ’08.” Can you tell us what that was about?
Liao: Yes. Liu Xiaobo was one of the main initiators of Charter ’08. As we all know, this is modeled after the Charter ’77, which played a really important role in the 1970’s when Eastern European countries were still under the Communist Regimes. Liu Xiaobo and his colleagues have this idea that … it’s time for a real change (in China). When he and his friends drafted this document in November, 2008, he sent it out to lots of people, not only inside China but also outside China… He asked us to read it carefully and if we have any critiques or suggestions, we should tell them. In this document, he explained, in the first part, several central terminologies such as freedom, such as human rights, such as constitution and so on.
In the second part, they mention 19 or 20 points - suggestions for the government what to do, for instance in the field of education, in the field of taxation, in the field of industry, and so on. This is a very mild and rational document. For lots of people, this is too mild. Lots of people want to have more radical, more strong change, quicker change in China, but I think most of the cosigners, even if they don’t agree with the total text, they give their signatures to support this document because they understand why this very mild and rational tone has been used, because China is not China in the ‘50’s and ‘60’s.
I think in the contemporary time, this is and will be one of the most important documents which reflects the wish and the dreams of all the Chinese who want to have a better society, a better political system, more freedom and a fair environment, a better environment. This reflects really the wish of most of the Chinese.
Ingles: Well then, despite what you describe as a “mild and rational tone” of this document that he cosigns, it is of course what ultimately led to the start of his current prison term, which is eleven years, to last until 2020. Let me read part of his statement in court December 23, 2009 which you referred to earlier as well. He said: “I have no enemies and no hatred. None of the police who have monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentenced me, are my enemies. While I’m unable to accept your surveillance, arrest, prosecution or sentencing, I respect your professions and personalities including those who act for the prosecution at present. I was aware of your respect and sincerity in your interrogation of me on December 3rd. For hatred is corrosive of persons’ wisdom and conscience. The mentality of enmity can poison a nation’s spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy. I hope therefore to be able to transcend my personal vicissitudes in understanding the development of the State and changes in society to counter the hostility of regime with the best of intentions and diffuse hate with love. I do not feel guilty for following my constitutional right to freedom of expression, for fulfilling my social responsibility as a Chinese citizen. Even if accused of it, I would have no complaints.”
Tienchi Liao, any winner of the Nobel Prize is certainly, as we’ve discussed now, elevated in the public’s consciousness, but I think it’s safe to say that most people on the street in the United States certainly, or perhaps elsewhere, would not have heard of Liu Xiaobo before late 2010. What do you think he has to offer to the curious who would like to explore his work in terms of peace philosophy that they could really apply to their own lives?
Liao: Well, if you ask people on the street in the United States of the name Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel, would they know the name? Probably not. Of course if you ask Dalai Lama, everybody knows that. Well Liu Xiaobo is, for me, a freedom fighter. He is an advocate for freedom of speech. He is a literary critic. He is also a poet. Of course, the central thought for him is to achieve all these goals without violence. I know, for lots of people, this is not acceptable, but I’ve known Liu Xiaobo for many years. I know his writings and his thoughts. I know he knows that violence can only be replaced by violence, and you achieve nothing and the price is too high. The price is not the one who wants the violence to pay, but the innocent people pay the price for the violence. So he is against any violence.
But I don’t think Liu Xiaobo is really a great thinker or philosopher to promote peace thoughts. If people want to know that, more about peace, they should read Dalai Lama or Gandhi or so on. I don’t think people can expect this from Liu Xiaobo. I think we should put Liu Xiaobo to the place where he belongs. He loves freedom, he wants that. His countrymen also enjoy freedom and he knows the best way to achieve it is to use your rational thinking and to use nonviolence methods. So I don’t think an individual can learn a lot from him about the philosophy of peace. I don’t know whether I’ve answered your question.
Ingles: No, I appreciate that honest answer because what I think you’re saying is that his story needs to be understood in the context of his life in China.
Ingles: And what he has been trying to do in the face of difficult circumstances to say the least. Can you envision a way that he might find early release? What would have to happen in your view for him to be out of prison before 2020?
Liao: Well, this is really very difficult to say. If he had won the Nobel Prize maybe five years ago or eight years ago, his chance to be released earlier is very great, it’s very large. We all noticed how the Chinese government reacted to the Nobel Prize this time, and this really hard and shameless reaction of the State power to one single person is just unacceptable. This government just behaves as it is. It shows its true face. It shows its true face not only to Liu Xiaobo but to the whole world, also to the American people, to their friends, to their enemies, or (who) they thought were enemies. All the same, they just want to show one thing: power. I have to tell you I really feel quite really powerless…
I wish that, I used to think, even in November, I thought maybe after the awards ceremony in Oslo, the government would become a little bit, well, somehow they don’t feel so much openly offended or to lose their face, and maybe they will show some gestures. But you know, we heard nothing, not only from Liu Xiaobo, but not even from his wife Liu Xia. We know nothing. The only thing I know is that Liu Xia’s brother is still allowed to have contact with her.
So according to all these situations, I don’t dare to say anything. My secret hope is that after two or three years, when everything calms down, the government probably will give him medical parole or something like that, but this is just wishful thinking. I don’t dare to say anything. I really feel sorry. I want to say maybe one thing: even if Liu Xiaobo has to be in prison to serve the full sentence, eleven years, I think he will accept that…with peace and with pride. He got what he deserves, the high honor, and he knows that he has to pay the price too. That’s all what I can say.
Ingles: Right. It sounds to me like he shares the long view that the Dalai Lama always talks of in terms of what needs to happen now, for change to come maybe a long time down the road. And it sounds like that’s what Liu Xiaobo accepts about his role in this process.
Liao: Yes. Do you know Liu Xiaobo (wrote) one article shortly before, maybe four weeks before, he was arrested. That was after the American election when Obama became President. Liu Xiaobo (wrote) an article with the title: “The Contributions of the Republicans to Obama’s Win After Election.” This article was written on November 5th of 2008. This article, you can imagine what was the content, but there was an astonishing paragraph there. Three fourths of the article was about Obama’s election, about the supreme system in the United States, about the election and this and that and how wonderful Obama becoming President as a colored person, as a young person, energetic person and so on.
Then the last part of the article was about the Dalai Lama. Liu Xiaobo said: the conflict between Chinese, Han Chinese and Tibet can only be solved… if we Chinese have the big heart to accept Dalai Lama as our president, as president of the People’s Republic of China. Then this conflict between the nationalities can be solved in a peaceful, rational, elegant way.
Ingles: And given the Chinese government’s stance on the Dalai Lama and Tibet, I can only imagine that statement at the end of his piece on the American elections did not win him any new friends in the Chinese government.
Liao: No. Not only from the authorities, but he will not win lots of admirers among the Chinese people. You know, lots of the Chinese are very nationalistic and very, I have to say, misleading patriotism. So yes, you are right.
Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talks with poet, writer, editor, Jeffrey Yang who is translating
Ingles: What are you finding in these June 4th Elegies? Have you begun work on those?
Yang: Yes I have. I’ve got probably about one third of the book done. He’s also written a really profound essay that introduces the book…that he wrote in 2000. Now the way the book is structured is that each year after ’89, around the time of Tiananmen, he has sat down to write a poem or a series of poems eulogizing or in memorial to the time during Tiananmen. It’s this act, again, of remembrance. So each year for 20 years he’s done this.
Ingles: Well I’m imagining that you must feel that you’re playing an important role in introducing this work to an English-speaking audience. As you say, there hasn’t been much in translation and, just to use the United States as an example, I think there was some intrigue about the announcement of his winning the Nobel Prize and recognizing that he was not free to accept it. But after that it’s like okay, he was a freedom worker in China, a poet and they shrug their shoulders and say: well that’s the last I’ll have to think about Liu Xiaobo. What a shame. But here’s an opportunity for them to really understand who he was and his career as a writer.
Yang: Hopefully the idea of a prize like this is that we’re all accountable here on this earth; countries, individuals. Of course each nation has its own set of problems and oppressions to a certain degree, but the Chinese government, if the 21st century is theirs like everybody is saying…they can’t really act like this. If they want to survive as a nation today …
Ingles: Do you think Liu Xiaobo’s writing has to offer something to the curious who would like to explore his work in terms of peace messages that they could apply to their own lives?
Yang: I think so, definitely. He has lived an extraordinary life, so it’s also (the story) of the life and the work. In the work itself, there is everything he’s been through as far as imprisonments and being unbending in his beliefs and his convictions, that there should be free speech here in China. Again, starting from the Tiananmen movement, this really began as a movement against government corruption just like the fall of the Qing in the early 20th century. It began as corruption in the government, protest against that. So what he’s writing in his poems about memory and remembering this time and how relevant it is today and how relevant memory is for us to progress as people, already that’s an amazing message to see through his life and his work.
Also, all that he’s been through, he so much, in different ways, emphasizes that he bears no hate. The famous speech he gave or the words he spoke at his trial: “I have no enemies.” Basically (with) everything he’s been through, he doesn’t harbor any hatred. He doesn’t harbor (hatred against) these soldiers, these party officers. He understands a bigger picture of how things work and about the way a power structure works and that hatred is one thing that needs to be overcome if we’re even going to be talking about peace. So through his poems, there is no hatred towards the government, towards China. That is one of the amazing things that I think, at least in the media, gets overlooked.
He of course loves his country. He stayed there. He did not leave like many people did, understandably, but he decided to stay there and so I think that’s one of the strongest things that I’m seeing as I’m going through that keeps coming up in different ways.
Ingles: Jeffrey Yang, as a poet yourself, what impresses you most about this work?
Yang: Picturing or trying to put yourself in his shoes where he’s in prison here and writing this, it’s almost beyond comprehension of what he’s writing about. So there is this sense of personal guilt too for him I think that he’s expressing here. There is, of course, anger too, but again, I don’t see the hatred that he could so easily fall into. The word “peace” and the root of it being in Sanskrit, pact, as in to bind, also means a payment, a payment of a debt that’s owed. I think a lot of the peace that’s coming through this and what Liu Xiaobo is writing about is paying a debt, a necessary payment towards these people who lost their lives in Tiananmen and also what that movement stood for and not forgetting that.