The centrepiece of many condemnations of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize is the reference to a statement he made in 1988. In an article in the South China Morning Post and then reposted on many sites (for example here), the Hong Kong-based scholars Yan Hairong and Barry Sautman cite this statement as Liu saying that China needed to have 300 years of colonisation in order to have real historical change. They add that ” in 2007, Liu stated that he did not want to take back what he had said in 1988, because it reflected a belief he retained. He attributed progress in China to Westernisation,” and conclude that Liu “is either woefully ignorant of the nature of colonialism …or Liu finds it a congenial alternative because he is convinced of Western superiority.” This is more or less the accusation leveled by online nationalists, and it is this that made it, albeit in distorted form, into the fake “secret protocol” of the Nobel Committee that I wrote about a few posts back.
The accusation is demagogic because it pretends to take Liu’s “call” for China’s colonisation at face value, rather than a hyperbole with a long history, a lament for what he perceived to be Chinese mentality, no different from that made by the famous TV series River Elegy in 1988, or Yang Bo, or Lu Xun or the May 4 movement before that. Back in 1988, such hyperbole was common; in today’s China, it is so out of sync with mainstream nationalism that it seems mad. One can of course argue with the accuracy of the “yellow culture” pessimism — in view of all the ferment in China I do not find it convincing — but if one is to condemn Liu for it, then Lu Xun has to be condemned as well.
Indeed, in an opinion piece on Liu’s prize, the Australian scholar David Kelly points out:
In his best-selling book China Stands Up, the writer Moluo, who once sided with ”liberal” voices close to Liu Xiaobo, sets out to settle accounts with the ”May Fourth Movement”, a patriotic movement criticising the entire Chinese tradition that followed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 (and, ironically, gave rise to the Communist movement in China).
Moluo claims that the May Fourth Movement, which now has a tradition of counter-tradition, embodied the denigration of Chinese culture that had been a mark of Western imperialism since the Opium Wars.
While not mentioned explicitly by Moluo, Liu’s writings are solidly in the May Fourth lineage.
Apart from the intellectual dishonesty of pretending that Liu is “soft on colonialism,” though, it is interesting to ask what follows if he really is. For Yan and Sautman, who are unrelenting anti-imperialists, it would be consistent then to reject the rest of his thinking as well. But the fact that colonialism remains a trump card — like Nazism — for so many people beyond leftist thinkers is interesting, considering that if Liu actually meant it that colonialism was good for modernization, he would represent a fairly mainstream strand of Chinese thought — not the May Fourth tradition, but that which privileges economic development over everything else.