Interview: Sidney Rittenberg on Liu Xiaobo’s death, Charter 08, and America’s “China Fantasy”
By Wen Liu July 22, 2017
A few days before Liu Xiaobo's passing on July 13th, this writer sent out a little survey on the possibility of him traveling to the U.S. for medical treatment. We ran out of time. Liu Xiaobo’s death, as his life, was political, not a usual topic for this blog. However, we can’t escape politics. We have a former political prisoner of China’s among us: Sidney Rittenberg, who served as lengthy a jail time and also for his ideals of democracy, if in different ways. Liu Xiaobo wanted to change China’s one-party rule while Sidney wanted the Communist Party to become more democratic. So what is Sidney’s reaction to Liu Xiaobo’s death? What does Sidney think of Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08? What about America’s “China fantasy,” that trade and prosperity would lead to China’s liberalization? For these and other questions, we have here, with great honor, Sidney Rittenberg,Sr:
WCWD: The world has just witnessed the death from late-stage liver cancer of China’s Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo while serving his 8th year of an 11-year imprisonment for authoring and signing Charter 08, a democracy manifesto for China. Together with his three previous jail sentences for his roles in the Tiananmen protest and human rights movement, Liu Xiaobo served altogether 14 to 15 years in prison. As someone, the only American, who served as long an imprisonment in China, as a foreign spy and enemy of the Communist Party, how do you see Liu Xiaobo’s imprisonment and death?
Sidney Rittenberg: Liu Xiaobo was a genuine hero, a staunch but peaceful campaigner for freedom and democracy. It was wrong to persecute and imprison him. That is not the road to stability for China, nor is it consonant with basic principles of Karl Marx.
I believe that dissidents, so long as they are peaceful, should not be imprisoned. If they are wrong, they need to be exposed through argument and debate, not suppressed. That is good for both sides, those who are correct, but need to develop their arguments and win supporters, and those who are wrong, whose ideas should be isolated and refuted in debate. I therefore think that Mr. Liu and people like him should not be imprisoned. The tremendous momentum of today’s China, moving forward on many fronts, offers plenty of opportunities to demonstrate which policies are right and which are wrong, if free, orderly, and peaceful debate is permitted.
Liu Xiaobo was obviously a very courageous. People call him a fighter for democracy. About that, I can see no question. But courage in itself is not necessarily right or laudable. During World War ll, thousands of Japanese youth expressed the desire to die for their emperor, as Kamikaze pilots. That makes them courageous, but it certainly does not make them good or right. I believe that Mr. Liu misused his courage, because what he advocated would have been, in my opinion, a disaster for today’s China.
WCWD: Talk about Charter 08 that got Liu Xiaobo his lengthiest jail sentence. According to Perry Link the China scholar, the document “calls not for ameliorative reform of the current political system but for an end to some of its essential features, including one-party rule, and their replacement with a system based on human rights and democracy.” What do you think of this document that made the Chinese government so angry, so fearful that they jailed him, banned any coverage of him, neglected his liver problem until it was too late, and then, according to latest news, hastily cremated him and scattered his ashes at the sea?
Sidney Rittenberg: Professor Link says that Liu Xiaobo’s Charter 08 advocated an end to some of the essential features of the current political system. Not quite accurate, in my understanding. Actually the core idea of his “Manifesto” was to remove the Chinese Communist Party from power, and he made clear in his utterances that a period of chaos might follow that, which would ultimately lead to democracy. It called for a complete overthrow of the current political system, because without “one-party rule,” it would be a completely different system. Would the new system which the Charter advocates have been able to lift seven or eight hundred million people out of dire poverty and turn the “Sick Man of Asia” into a ranking world power? Historical facts suggest that it would not. China’s system has worked spectacularly well for the Chinese people. No wonder that they tend to vigorously support all efforts to protect that system against attack.
LXB’s proposed program for progress in China would have been disastrous, if adopted. There is at present no possible unified leading team for China, except for the CCP. They have not allowed any challenging group to form. To unseat the CCP today would lead to chaos and anarchy, as in Iran after the Shah, Iraq after Saddam, South Vietnam after Ngo Dinh Diem, etc.
Anyone who lived through the Cultural Revolution knows that chaos usually does not lead to democracy. One of Mao Zedong’s slogans at that time was, “Without destruction there’s no construction.” 不破不立，破字当头，立在其中. Destruction comes first, and construction will emerge from it. That was a disastrous slogan, and it seems, more or less, to be Mr. Liu’s thinking. As it clearly is of Steve Bannon’s thinking. LXB's "Charter" was noble and glorious and should certainly not have been suppressed, but it was hopelessly unrealistic.
Do we know for a fact that Mr. Liu’s liver problem was neglected until it was too late? So far, we have seen no evidence to that effect.
WCWD: China has a long tradition of suppressing free speech, with something called 文字狱, or literary jail, from ancient times. At his last sentence in 2009, Liu Xiaobo said as The Economist reported: “I hope I will be the last victim of China’s long record of treating words as crimes.” Are you optimistic that Liu Xiaobo was the last, as the most prominent, victim of China’s literary jail carried on from Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor, who buried scholars alive to Mao who sent thousands of intellectuals to labor camps for thought reform to Xi Jinping who has tightened censorship and jailed rights lawyers and activists, not to say with Liu Xiaobo’s death on his watch?
Sidney Rittenberg: No, I do not think the suppression of dissident intellectuals ends with Liu’s death. I wish it did, but I see little chance of that. As long as China’s leaders fear subversion, intervention, and insurrection, I believe that they will continue to limit the free expression of opinion, even peaceful expression. It seems to me that China, in that respect, is something like the Netherlands of Spinoza’s day, when the great thinker met with suppression: People can say what they please, but if their views challenge the right of the rulers to rule AND if they publish those views or organize to support them, they will be suppressed. As the fundamental economic reforms move forward-- the CCP has announced them and they are urgently needed, but so far are creeping along at snail’s pace. As these fundamental reforms are carried out, and Xi Jinping’s declared aim of converting a managing government into a service government is realized, I think we will see a general relaxation of controls and a more confident reliance on public sanity.
Incidentally, the mention of the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, is judicious. He was a brutal conqueror, and he suppressed the opposition Confucian scholars, but he also brought about a unified, economically more progressive China, creating the world’s first great unified, bureaucratic state. This also ended the centuries of incessant, murderous wars among the feudal states that preceded the unified Qin Empire, and killed many more people.
WCWD: With Liu Xiaobo’s death, we are also reminded of what the China specialist James Mann called “America’s dangerous China fantasy” in the New York Times in 2016: the view that the trade, foreign investment, and increasing prosperity would lead to political liberalization in the world’s most populous country.” Or James Bradley’s book “The China Mirage,” the view held by early American missionaries as well as the China Lobby during World War II that the Chinese would become just like the Americans. So what do you think of U.S. China policy so far, or how do you like to see it evolve, with the U.S. being the champion of free speech and China being so much richer today than in Nixon’s time, yet remaining the same politically?
Sidney Rittenberg: I think the delusion that Chinese would become “just like Americans” is, and always was, laughable. Do we really want to see a Chinese Donald Trump? Chinese should be good Chinese, and Americans, good Americans, with all joining to form a peaceful world. Those who thought they would “make the Chinese like Americans” reveal a kind of plot against the Chinese people that we help you in the hope of subverting you. Then, we’ re disappointed when they continue to stubbornly insist on being Chinese, members of the world’s oldest and largest civilization.
We cannot expect the fox to guard the hen house, or the US government to really stand for genuine freedom in countries that they want to control. They use the support of freedom to hide their true intention. They only want enough freedom so that they can work through native politicians and bankers to control and profit from then. Furthermore, each country has the right to determine its own system, free or not free--no interference unless that country threatens the peace of others or commits genocide. Our China policy should be based on national interests, mutual respect, and cooperation where possible, while expressing our differences. Righteous indignation may fuel revolutions, but it is not helpful for rational, fact-based analysis.
Personally, I believe that our China policy should be based on three facts of current history:
(a) We will never be able to tell the Chinese what they must do.
(b) They will never be able to tell us what we must do.
(c) America and China need each other. None of the crises threatening the entire human race at present, WMD plus terrorism, climate change, pandemics, global finances, can be resolved without cooperation between these two countries. Our economies are more complementary than competitive, and there are huge benefits in working together, with mutual respect and friendship.
WCWD: Last but not the least. Washington state leads the nation in trading with China on per capita basis and in building friendly relations with China, from business to education to culture. However, with the death of Liu Xiaobo imprisoned by the same government Washington has various sister state and city relationships with, should Washingtonians and Washington companies carry on with their “business as usual” with China, or how to you think they should deal with this tragedy in their many dealings with China?
Sidney Rittenberg: The question seems to be whether the death of one man (unknown among most of the Chinese people) should change our state’s basic policy and attitude toward China. It seems that to put the question clearly is to answer it, obviously, it should not. We’re not talking about genocide, or about bases for terrorism which threaten other countries. We’re referring to the application of current Chinese law to someone who died in captivity. If China vehemently disagrees with certain actions of our legal authorities (say, moves against abortion in Texas, or the wrongful arrest and imprisonment of an ethnic Chinese scientist), should that be grounds for them to change their basic policy towards us? Obviously, not. It’s apples and oranges: the domestic law of a given country, which does not damage or threaten us, and our relationship with that country.
We naturally sympathize with those innocents in any country, including our own, who suffer persecution. But this should not confuse us so that we strike out blindly in ways that help neither them or ourselves or the cause of democracy and justice.
(For more information on major events in Washington state-China relations, go to WA China Chronicle.)