by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Chinese Government Handout

FOLLOWING THE death of Liu Xiaobo, China has taken a heavy-handed approach to preventing commemorations of Liu’s death, with the Chinese government ordering the cremation of Liu’s body and the immediate dispersal of his ashes at sea. China likely hoped to prevent any physical memorial of Liu, such as a grave, from becoming a site where individuals could gather to commemorate Liu, and in that way potentially inspiring resistance. It seems that not even the dead are safe in China, then.

This would be an age old tactic of states hoping to prevent the commemoration of individuals after their deaths in a manner it fears may inspire blowback against them, whether seen in enemies of the state being struck off the historical record or permission being denied for their burial in the ancient Greek, Roman, or Chinese empires, as perhaps most famous in the example of Antigone in Greek mythology, or more recent examples in other geopolitical contexts, as America’s rapid burial of Osama bin Laden’s corpse at sea after his killing during a 2011 Navy SEAL raid in Pakistan with no pictures or video being made of the event. The Chinese government claims that this hasty burial at sea was at the wishes of Liu’s family and pictures show that Liu’s family was present at his burial, but this is contradicted by reports stating that Liu’s family was hoping to observe the traditional seven day mourning period. Friends of Liu also claim that few family friends can be observed in government photos of Liu’s funeral, instead showing state security officers, and that friends of Liu were barred from leaving their homes to attend the funeral. Foreign media was also misdirected regarding the site of the funeral.

Liu Xiaobo’s widow, alongside her brother, Liu Hui, at Liu’s funeral. Photo credit: Shenyang Municipal Information Office

What should be taken away from China’s actions after Liu Xiaobo’s death is that China is as lacking in compunction as ever in shrugging off criticisms of it on human rights grounds. Before Liu’s death, China attempted to cover up its mistreatment of Liu by releasing a video of a man who appeared to be Liu receiving excellent medical care while in Chinese custody, thanking the party for doing so.

After Liu’s death, China has further attempted to cover up criticism with heavy-handed statements in state-run media referring to Liu as an enemy of the state, through releasing official photos and video of the funeral, and through a press conference with Liu’s brother Liu Xiaoguang thanking the party-state for their aid, something thought by many to have occurred at either Chinese coercion or collaboration between Liu Xiaoguang and the party-state. Liu Xiaoguang has long been seen by Liu Xiaobo’s as antagonistic towards his brother’s political advocacy and having ties to the Chinese government. And, indeed, as with the prior footage purporting to show Liu Xiaobo receiving medical care, it also seems quite strange for the Chinese government to release footage of what it ostensibly claims was a private event held by Liu’s family.

Although present at the funeral, Liu’s widow, Liu Xia, was notably absent from this press conference and many have dismissed reports from the Chinese government claiming that Liu Xia is “free” as a lie, Liu Xia having also been under house arrest for seven years and the Chinese government currently claiming that Liu Xia should be kept away from any “external influences” during the process of mourning. As should go without saying, discussion or news of Liu Xiaobo’s death has been censored on the Internet in China and on WeChat. In order to prevent mourning online, the emoji for even candles was blocked on WeChat. What discussion does occur among Chinese on WeChat takes place using code words.

Hopes for democratic reform or otherwise a lessening of restrictions on freedoms in China have been dampened, then, by the hard line that China has taken following Liu’s death. Political dissidence will only met by suppression in the most extreme of ways, with the Chinese party-state demonstrating once again that it sees fear and political suppression as the most effective weapon in quelling political criticism. In spite of how large a place China occupies in the world politically and economically, the Chinese party-state remains quite set in its ways. As has been discussed many times, the last regime in which a Nobel Peace Prize winner died while imprisoned for political activities was Nazi Germany.

Liu Xiaobo (left) and his wife Liu Xia (right) shortly before his death

What steps should be taken next for the Chinese democracy movement remains to be seen. One of the crueler twists of Liu Xiaobo’s death is that instead of provoking a wave of anger and political dissidence against the undemocratic rule of the CCP in China is that China’s uncompromising reaction may instead have a chilling effect on political dissidents, seeing as China will be particularly restrictive in the immediate time frame after Liu’s death. At present, it may be best for Chinese political dissidents to keep their heads down and live to fight another day.

Residents of places facing the possibility of Chinese incursion on their territorial sovereignty, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan should realize how much more they have to fear from the loss of democratic freedoms to China and they should be stirred to action by that. Whereas Hong Kong has seen increasing restrictions on political freedoms in recent years, as seen in the disqualification of elected Hong Kong legislators from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council on the same day as Liu’s death, mystifications sometimes prevail among some in Taiwan about the political state of China, with the view that the opening up of the economy in China also entailed the more or less political reform of China or at least evidences that China is well on the way to democratizing. This occurs sometimes not simply from members of the pan-Blue political camp, but simply among the apolitical or politically naive.

This is hardly the case, as we should see from Liu’s death and the actions of the Chinese government after his death. But, again, what will in fact allow for the democratization of China remains unknown. It will certainly not occur under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party and Liu’s death should serve as a reminder of this.

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