Dear 中国共产党中央委员会 (Central Committee of the Communist Party of China):
Like the rest of the world, I witnessed with a raised brow your reaction to the announcement last week that Liu Xiaobo has been awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Blasphemy, eh? I think you guys might want to tone it down a tad. If you call the decision of the Nobel committee “blasphemy”, what words are we to use to describe your decision to imprison a man for 11 years merely for writing something you happen not to like?
Blasphemy is defined both as an “impious utterance or action concerning god or sacred things” and as “irreverent behaviour towards anything held sacred”. By using this particular term, rather than convince anyone that the Nobel Committee has done wrong, you accomplish two things. First, you draw attention to the plight of Liu Xiaobo, his harsh imprisonment, and the bullying nature of your government. Second, you reveal how you think of yourself. Here’s some news: you may think the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China is godlike and sacred, but the rest of the world does not.
A few years ago, I spent some months in China. I found the people to be lovely—if somewhat reticent. On the street, older people stopped to count in amazement: one, two, three children! Younger people, in t-shirts emblazoned with Chinglish, smiled shyly. The food was delicious. The streets safe. The cities vibrant.
I was shocked, though, when we visited some of the temples. I expected ancient, crumbling structures like the ones I’d visited in other parts of Asia. And while I did visit a few in the countryside that had been left alone, the ones in the cities had a kind of false, Disneyland-like feel. At one, our guide vaguely mentioned that it had recently been rebuilt after having burned down. Someone else, with surprising candor, said the authorities (you, I believe) set the fire some mad moment during the Cultural Revolution. I later learned that in ten years (1966-1976) 4,922 temples out of a total of 6,843 were destroyed. Talk about blasphemy.
There was something disturbing, too, about the museums. Having read all my life about Chinese art and culture, I was dismayed to find that it was possible to view everything in the Shanghai Museum of Art, walking slowly and reading everything, in a couple of hours. There are more Chinese paintings and artifacts in one wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I wondered about this until it occurred to me that you guys had also ordered all art to be destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. In my opinion, this is blasphemy.
I also learned that the Chinese communist party burned books during this same period. Not just the genealogy books, which kept family records—one of the Four Old Things that had to be destroyed in order to transform China—but all foreign books, too. Next, all those who read foreign books were mocked, harassed, imprisoned, or killed. And then the order to destroy was extended to books by Chinese authors and punishment to anyone with any type of education. Knowledge, ideas, intellectual thought, questioning, curiosity—all beaten out of the populace. In my book (pun intended), knowledge is sacred, destroying it blasphemous.
And these attitudes are not confined to the past. One day, meandering through one of the many city parks, we encountered a large crowd blocking the paths. This massive group soon enveloped us. They were mostly silent. Some were pouring tea from thermoses and eating lunch. Some just sat and stared at the treetops. All of them had a piece of paper laid out on their laps or next to them on the bench or held up in shaking hands. Some of these pages were fancy, laminated, with a photograph—always of one person who smiles for the camera, an old snapshot from a happier day. All the pages had words in Chinese, which I couldn’t read, and a series of numbers arranged in ways I did understand: 5’8”, 155, 12/04/2003; 4’11”, 95, 02/05/1998; 5’6”, 125, 11/10/1992.
It slowly dawned on me that each one of these pages stood for a person—missing, imprisoned or dead—and each person in the crowd represented a grieving family member. We had wandered into a protest: silent, because under your laws citizens aren’t allowed to stage a demonstration or voice their anguish or question you, the authorities. I consider human life to be sacred; not respecting it, blasphemy.
In their primary narcissism, small children who don’t get their way occasionally express it by having a temper tantrum. They wail, kick, and scream. The adults around them have ways of dealing with them. We say, “We aren’t going to let you break things” or “You aren’t allowed to bite little Joey”. In the schoolyard, we teach our children to identify bullies and to stand up to them. When we encounter adult bullies, we avoid them if we can; if we can’t, we acknowledge their narcissism and its destructiveness, try to mitigate the damage they do, set up an environment of mutual respect, and brace ourselves for a likely clash of wills.
I’ve noticed that you guys sometimes behave like the child having a temper tantrum, sometimes like the schoolyard bully, and sometimes like the narcissist who expects the world to change according to his will. Well, I have news for you: if you want to shut yourself off and break all your toys and terrorise your citizens, there may not be a whole lot the rest of us can do about it; if you want to engage with the world, however, and be considered a nation deserving of respect, then it’s you who must change, not the world. The Nobel Committee can give prizes to anyone they want. Presidents and Prime Ministers are allowed their own perspectives. Outside of China and a few other places under tyrannical rule, people can write and say and think what they like.
And I say this: Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, it’s time to grow up already.
A former visitor to your country and an observer of recent events