4 February, 2013Issue 21.2LiteraturePoetryWorld Politics

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Gripping the Prison Bars

Dominic Davies

No Enemies No Hatred: Selected Essays and PoemsLiu Xiaobo
No Enemies. No Hatred: Selected Essays and Poems
Harvard University Press
320 pages
ISBN 0674061470


On 8 December 2008, Chinese police entered Liu Xiaobo’s Beijing apartment and removed him to an unknown location for “residential surveillance”. After receiving just two visits from his wife during the next six months, he was formally arrested on 23 June 2009 and charged with the “incitement of subversion of state power”. Shortly after the anniversary of his arrest, on 23 December 2009, he was found guilty by a court in Beijing and sentenced to eleven years in prison. One year on, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia. As we read this collection of Liu Xiaobo’s essays on Chinese culture, critiques of China’s totalitarian state, and powerful minimalist poetry, it is important, and also desperately sad, to recall that the author is currently serving his sentence in Beijing’s Jinzhou prison.

It is also important to note that Liu Xiaobo knew full well what the consequences of his actions would be. Through the summer and autumn of 2008 Liu collaborated with a number of other Chinese activists—organised within an umbrella association entitled “Chinese Human Rights Defenders”—to assemble Charter 08, a document that, amongst other things, calls for an end to one party-rule in China. Charter 08 is included in this collection of Liu Xiaobo’s work in the final section, entitled “Documents”, a powerful move by the editors and one that pays tribute to the highly politicized nature of Liu’s writing. The concise eleven-page document carefully locates itself historically: it notes that 2008 is the 100th anniversary of the writing of China’s first constitution, the sixtieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and, published in December, marks the eve of the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. All of these moments, and particularly the last, are significant events for Liu, and receive extended attention in other essays collected here.

Charter 08’s authors list their values in short, bullet pointed paragraphs: “Human Rights”, “Equality”, “Republicanism”, “Democracy” and “Constitutional Rule”. It includes nineteen specific demands that cover a broad spectrum of societal problems, ranging from “Legislative Democracy” and “Public Control of Public Servants” to “Freedom of Religion” and “Protection of the Environment”. Despite the revolutionary nature of the document within the context of Communist China, it is straight-forwardly written and, like the rest of Liu Xiaobo’s work, speaks with rational precision. As we read these essays there is no sense of the self-censorship practiced by many other contemporary Chinese activists and writers. Liu is unafraid to speak the truth: upon receiving an award from the Chinese Democracy Education Foundation in 2002, he sent a statement of thanks (government authorities did not allow him to attend in person) that is also included in this collection entitled “Refusing to Lie Can Undermine a Tyranny”. It is perhaps in keeping with his political honesty, then, that whereas many of Charter 08’s authors escaped China shortly before its publication, Liu Xiaobo made the conscious decision to stay and take the fall for the document.

The title of this collection, No Enemies, No Hatred, is taken from Liu Xiaobo’s final statement at his trial on 23 December 2009 (which was subsequently read out at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in 2010), and encapsulates both his socio-political stance and his revolutionary position—revolutionary not only in terms of his subversion of state rule in China, but in his ideological viewpoint and quest for peace that draws on the examples of Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. The gravity of these comparisons, made by the editors of this collection, are not rhetorical overstatements. As Liu says in his defence at his trial:

I have no enemies and no hatred. None of the police who have watched, arrested, or interrogated me, none of the prosecutors who have indicted me, and none of the judges who will judge me are my enemies. There is no way I can accept your surveillance, arrests, indictments, or verdicts, but I respect your professions and your persons. […] Hatred only eats away at a person’s intelligence and conscience, and an enemy mentality can poison the spirit of an entire people.

This simultaneous respect for, and rejection of, his repressors recalls the revolutionary spirit of the Mahatma, who led the Indian subcontinent to independence from British rule in 1947. Like Gandhi, who spent much of his life in the prisons of the Raj, Liu Xiaobo is not new to incarceration: in 1996 he was arrested and sent to a re-education-through-labour camp for three years. As Perry Link shows in his excellent introduction, this period was extremely formative for Liu, crystallising many of his conceptual and political opinions. Almost all the poems included in the collection are taken from these years of imprisonment and addressed to his wife Liu Xia (another of the collection’s editors). These are not love poems in any narrow sense—the figure of Liu’s wife instead operates as an interlocutor and spiritual companion. Unsurprisingly, on 8 October 1999, as Link writes: “Liu Xiaobo returned from the reeducation camp, unreeducated.”

Credit is due to the editors and translators of this collection, who have managed to convey the brevity and depth of Liu Xiaobo’s thought and poetry through their careful selection of his huge output over the past few decades. By communicating Liu’s ideas to an international readership while the author himself remains imprisoned, they honour and extend his project of subversion. What is admirable, in both Liu’s work and in the editors’ choices, is the sense of optimism—and even, at times, light-heartedness—that pervades the collection. Though a political impetus drives all these essays and poems, No Enemies, No Hatred captures Liu Xiaobo’s sense of humour and his willingness to engage with any topic: alongside the analyses of government repression and corruption are essays on a range of subjects from the subversive potential of the internet and the recent rise of pornography to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. By translating Liu’s insightful observations into English, the editors of this collection give an international readership access to a previously unavailable portrait of contemporary China. In the United Kingdom we are used to statements such as “the twenty-first century belongs to China” and “China is the new great global power”, with the implicit assumption that it is also a nation of repression and ideological conformity. But this insider’s perspective sheds light on the way in which the communist state operates, unravelling its nuances and complexities, and demonstrates how such Western grandiosities are incorporated into the government’s propagandist machine. As Liu writes:

Comments from the West like “a formidable China is on the rise” and “the sleeping giant has re-awoken” ring constantly in the ears. This Western talk about China’s rise, added to the chorus of Western politicians and pundits expressing their wonderment, and to the stream of pro-China reports from prestigious international agencies, all does much to stimulate Chinese nationalism. Chinese people really begin to think of themselves as “a huge soaring dragon” or “a sleeping giant re-awoken.”

Liu’s essays on the recent rise of Chinese nationalism, or what he terms more specifically ‘patriotism’, condemn the ways in which China justifies its self-conception as an emerging global power through its xenophobic antagonism with old rivals: Japan, Taiwan and now especially North America. He draws attention to the hypocrisy of an ideological project that selects those comments from the international world that suits its interests while censoring, where it can, those other numerous, condemnatory appeals. But he is also concerned with exposing the mechanism by which a “superficial appearance of submission and support from the populace” is created for the outside world: not through “bamboozlement by ideology nor repression by brute force” as we might expect, but by employing “the soft tactic of buying people off”.

Liu documents the numerous pockets of resistance and dissent that are scattered across China, communicating his insights into the ongoing contesting of state ideology within his relentlessly optimistic outlook. Though revolutionary in his demands and in his hopes for the future of China, he explicitly rejects a full-scale violent uprising, which he fears could result in the installation of yet another dictatorial regime. Instead, Liu engages with a range of economic and cultural issues to trace the gradual disintegration of the repressive apparatus of the current government, fitting them into a convincing narrative that details the Chinese people’s emerging demand for a democratic state. This is not naive optimism: Liu is the first to acknowledge the difficulties which the Chinese people face and which he, after his repeated arrests and imprisonments, has tackled head-on. It is instead carefully constructed from the bottom up through a tireless project of intellect and self-sacrifice, the brevity of which is captured and communicated by this collection. Read these essays and sign this petition set up by another tireless twentieth-century activist, Desmond Tutu, to free Liu Xiaobo:

For now, thanks to this new collection, his poetry is able to speak to us through cell walls and across national borders.

Gripping the prison bars

this moment

I must wail in grief

for I fear the next

so much I have no tears for it

remembering them, the innocent dead,

I must thrust a dagger calmly

into my eyes

must purchase with blindness

clarity of the brain

for that bone-devouring memory

is best expressed

by refusal.


Dominic Davies is reading for a DPhil in English literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.