Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, reflects the paradox of power and narrow thinking endemic to the contemporary world. His criticism of China is inevitably taken as supportive of the West and its history, values, and policies, which historically have targeted China as an object of imperialism. The criticism serves the West as much as it may affect China.
Liu himself understood the dilemma early, describing himself as a frog at the bottom of a well, staring up at a patch of blue sky, lacking the context for his criticisms. He recognized the sordid history of the West in dealing with Asia, Africa, and the Americas, but owned that he lacked the intellectual capacity and breadth of knowledge that he admired in Western cultural critics. In a trenchant epilogue to his book, Chinese Politics and China’s Modern Intellectuals, Liu wrote:
One of humanity’s greatest mistakes in the twentieth century, in my view, has been its attempt to escape its predicaments using the civilizations that it has already created. … Humanity so far has been unable to conceive a completely new civilization that might solve such problems as the population explosion, the energy crisis, environmental imbalance, nuclear disarmament and addiction to pleasure and to commercialization. Nor is there any culture that can help humanity once and for all eliminate spiritual suffering or transcend personal limits. … [Nuclear annihilation] has become part of the backdrop of every person’s life. The specter of death can render all human effort futile. The best that anyone can do is to face cruel realities squarely and stride bravely toward the abyss.
These remarks do reflect a common sensibility understood world-wide for a long time. They could have been written in the 1950s. But more candidly, Liu reveals a more profound self-doubt:
After I finished this book, whose guiding principle was to use Western civilization as a tool for critical reflection on China, I suddenly found myself at a loss, trapped in an awkward position, and shaken. It struck me like a bolt from the blue that I had been attacking an obsolete culture with a weapon that itself was only a bit less obsolete. I was like a paraplegic laughing at a quadriplegic.
This was a candid admission. But Liu’s wife was more precise, telling Liu that his engaged dissidence wedded him more firmly into identifying with the system (here quoted in collected essays by Liu Xiaobo titled No Enemies, No Hatred):
The system treats you as an opponent, and in so doing it accommodates you, tolerates you, even flatters and encourages you. In a sense you are an oppositional ornament of the system. But me? I am an invisible person, I disdain even to demand anything of this society, and don’t lose sleep over how I am going to denounce it. It is I, not you, who am fundamentally incompatible with it. …
These words hit the nail on the head, admitted Liu, but he only elaborates on his own ideas in the same flawed vein. He misses the true import of his wife’s words. To engage in the world is to give it tacit approbation. To be invisible is the true incompatibility.
Liu’s problem is more complex. Despite being a university professor of Chinese literature, with some years spent in the West, Liu does not invoke the rich tradition of China’s intellectual history in understanding the present. He is embarrassed to do so, perhaps, if not ignorant of it. While he recognizes the Confucian convention of the imperial mandate from heaven as a continuing theme in Chinese political thinking, and rightly notes the ossified Confucian social system as abetting the existing cultural order, Liu does not mention the long tradition outside of this system, the Taoist and Buddhist political theories that always swirled around Chinese intellectual circles, balancing Confucian excesses and rigidities. The legacy of China’s last two centuries’ encounter with the West destroyed this balance. Western powers fostered the ossified system in order to weaken Chinese society and state. Opium and technology finished it off, but nationalism revived its ambitions, fatally flawed, however, as modern thought.
The Taoist philosophical tradition proposed a complete social system based on decentralization and agricultural economy, protecting individuals, families, and nature. With Buddhism, Taoist thought vigorously pursued an eremitic tradition that promoted a system of values centered around individual and social responsibility, preservation of environment, and a philosophy of life. This harmonious presentation of values is neither ossified nor obscure, and has seen a modest revival in contemporary China, where materialism, mass consumption, and ideology — all crafted and imported from the West — is ruining environment, economy, society, and individual autonomy.
What is obsolete is the present, East and West — not in its preponderant ills but in its destructiveness and mindless lack of direction. Critics from both East and West miss the rest of the sky when they continue to see science, technology, materialism, and engagement as reforms leading to a new civilization rather than as paths to the abyss.