Wednesday night, Mediacorp TV Channel 5 screened the Peace Prize concert held in Oslo. I was a little surprised that Mediacorp screened it because China is ultra-sensitive about any praises for Liu Xiaobo, the winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, and Singapore tends to keep its head down whenever China’s sensitivities are stepped upon.
But kudos to Mediacorp for screening it anyway.
The concert itself was mediocre with aging crooner Barry Manilow as its star attraction. Barry Manilow, for heaven’s sake!
Unable to bear it, I turned on the computer to search for news about Libya. This week, Libya is burning, with anti-government protesters now having taken control of the eastern half of the country’s Mediterranean coast while pro-government militia, said to be mercenaries, roam the streets of the capital Tripoli, shooting people on sight.
Here is a video report from Al Jazeera, uploaded to Youtube late on Wednesday, 23 February. The situation is extremely fluid and what the report says may no longer be true by the time you watch it. There is no clear indication, despite many defections by former loyalists to the opposition, whether this revolt will succeed. It’s on the knife-edge tonight as I write this.
Ever since the overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia on 15 January this year, China has curbed access to information about the spreading revolts among Arab states fearing that disaffected Chinese might take heart from these examples of people power. More recently, as calls were made by a few dissidents for a Jasmine Revolution within China, Beijing has intensified its watch over key persons and streets in city centres.
Tunisia might be a small country relatively insignificant to the Chinese — how many people there had heard of it before all this? — but when Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was forced to quit on 11 February, less than a month after the Tunisian decapitation, the seriousness of risk must have become inestimably greater to the Chinese hierarchy. The infectivity of the first two examples is obvious from the revolts in Bahrain, where the government had to make concessions to appease protestors (who are still not satisfied and camped out at Pearl Roundabout), in Yemen and now in Libya, the most bloody of all. Even conservative Saudi Arabia is feeling the heat; the Saudi king has just ordered massive doses of money aid to soothe rising social tensions.
That many Arab states were ripe for revolution had been a known fact. Ten years ago, a United Nations Human Development Report highlighted the dangers of the ‘democratic deficit’ in many countries. To that is added huge social inequality, high rates of unemployment and a ruling elite largely seen as corrupt and self-serving.
That one can tick these same boxes for China explains why Beijing is now so edgy.
This is not to say that democracy solves everything. Democratic regimes can also fail, or at least get so degraded that people can become equally unhappy. Large numbers of Filipinos and Indians, for example, might argue that there is “too much democracy” in their homeland.
Yet, however unhappy they may be, you rarely see popular revolutions aimed at installing a new dictator to clean out the old dysfunctional democratic order. It’s hard to imagine a revolution in favour of kleptocracy, social inequity and the curtailment of civil liberties. What tends to happen is that a strongman rises to power through the dysfunctional democratic system and then dismantles it, often with the crowd cheering him on in the hope that they will enjoy a better life. This has happened several times in recent history — the rise of caudillos in many Latin American countries for example, the latest one being Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. Then there’s also Vladimir Putin in Russia and Hun Sen in Cambodia.
I suspect that for every revolt against authoritarian regimes in favour of more democracy, there has been an equal number of erosions of democracy in favour of authoritarian systems. And both have popular support. It is not evident that there is any manifest trend in the world towards greater democracy. For every plus, there’s a minus.
Even so, they are not equivalent. A democratic revolution in one country tends to worry authoritarian regimes in other countries immensely. We are seeing exactly this today in China and other Arab states. But anti-democratic lurches in one country hardly ever trouble other democratic countries. This asymmetry suggests to us that there is a moral distinction, with one system more self-assured than the other. Democratic systems enjoy greater legitimacy and are more confident of their flexibility in reflecting evolving popular demands.
The two paths also differ in another way: The authoritarian path, because of the absence of checks and balances, is very slippery, tending to lead to ever more centralised power and self-interest, and when challenged, has a tendency to resort to force to maintain the regime. Democratic systems have inherent checks and balances, which may lead to confusion and paralysis, but which mitigate against extreme centralisation of power. Without a centralisation of power, it is much less likely for force to be deployed against opponents.
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Now we come back to Liu Xiaobo. Born in Changchun in 1955, this professor and writer came to public notice in 1986 for an article he wrote denouncing Chinese writers’ dependence on the state and their inability to think for themselves. He was soon invited to give talks all over China and even abroad. But his life was changed forever by his involvement with the Tiananmen Square demonstrations of May and June 1989. While he was instrumental in negotiating with the army for the peaceful evacuation of the square after the crackdown began, he was soon arrested and jailed for 20 months.
After his release, he continued to write to preserve the memory of the Tiananmen massacre and to promote peaceful resistance through “living in truth”. “To refuse to lie in public life represents the most effective force to undermine tyranny,” he said.
Although he faced severe limitations on publication and was constantly watched by the police, Liu continued to work for his beliefs. He organized petitions against the arrest of writers and intellectuals, spoke out in defence of workers protesting mistreatment and the corruption of their employers and helped in defending those whose rights had been trampled on.
In the late 2000s, he collaborated with others to organise Charter 08, a manifesto inspired by Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, asking for the introduction of real democracy in China through separation of powers, an end to one-party rule, and a federal system that is more responsive to citizens. While he was not the main drafter of the manifesto, he played a big role in gathering signatories — it has now been signed by over 10,000 Chinese citizens from all walks of life.
For his trouble, he was arrested in 2009 and subsequently sentenced to eleven years’ imprisonment. Amnesty International lists him as a prisoner of conscience. In 2010, he became China’s first winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The government in Beijing condemned the decision of the Nobel Peace Prize committee for lauding someone they consider a criminal; it accuses the West of using the prize as a tool to influence Chinese domestic politics.
The events in Libya this week where as many as 1,000 have been killed — a horrific number in a country of only 6 million (barely more than in Singapore) — exposes the falsehood that Beijing hides behind. A country is not really at peace when it trembles at the sight of popular revolutions elsewhere; when a government has to censor the internet and heighten surveillance of potential dissidents in the ever-present fear that its own people will rise up anytime. A distinction has to be made between an enforced quietitude and a substantive peace. The latter can only be achieved by a fair degree of democratisation and a genuine honouring of human rights for all.
The work that Liu has done is aimed at moving China from enforced quietitude to a real peace. It aims to banish the risk that one day an unhappy Chinese public too might rise up Libya-style against a government resorting once again to force to preserve itself. If a thousand people can be killed in one week in a country of 6 million, imagine how many lives can be lost should a similar disaster befall China, a country of 1.3 billion. And it is not far-fetched at all. China in the 20th Century must have suffered tens of millions dead in conflict, many of them inflicted by the Party on its own people. I can’t give you a more precise number because no one has counted.
If Liu Xiaobo and others, courageous like him, succeed in their deeply moral mission to remake China as a truly peaceful country, the countless lives they save and the immeasurable suffering they prevent will be an achievement of such immense magnitude, the Nobel Peace Prize will seem a tiny honour by comparison.