Sympathize With the Victims, Do Not Collaborate With the Perpetrators
The West expressed outrage over the attacks on Charlie Hebdo’s freedom of expression, but has long stood idly by as China silences its dissenting voices.
The West takes the principle “freedom of speech” for granted, but it can be fatal when it touches the nerves of religious zealots. On January 7th, the shooting at the weekly French satirical Charlie Hebdo paralyzed the world. Two brothers, born in France to Algerian parents, were the assailants. Although they grew up and were educated in France, they never identified with the West. Instead, they were radicalized even as they lived in Paris. After the killing, they left their IDs in their getaway car. This was likely on purpose: the nameless killers wanted to become famous “heroes” worldwide, for protecting Muhammad’s honor and eliminating those who published blasphemy.
- During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison til 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
- Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners, and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.
Many voices in the Islamic world have condemned this barbaric act of terrorism. Although the perpetrators acted as individuals, the terrorist ideology, perpetuated by organizations like Al Qaeda, is the real source of evil. Unfortunately, Al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations are not the only ones who attack “freedom of expression” in our world: authoritarian state powers systematically use censorship, and intimidate those with dissenting opinions through threats, harassment, kidnapping, imprisonment or even murder. When this happens, the Western world stands by and says nothing. In certain situation, when the perpetrator is powerful enough, the West even plays the role of accomplice.
In the past several months, the Xi Jinping administration has arrested several dozen writers, journalists, and civil rights defenders. Those who sympathized with Hong Kong’s 2014 “Umbrella Revolution” were treated like criminals. The accusations against them ranged from “leaking state secrets,” and “inciting subversion to the state power” to “provocation and disruption of public order.” Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti received a life sentence over accusations of advocating “separatism.” The Chinese government took advantage of the international anxiety over terrorism and conjured it into political capital to suppress the unsatisfied minorities in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Mongolia. By dangling economic baits, China attracts greedy Western companies into becoming its accomplices.
Last December, the US-based Facebook headquarters suspended the account of Tibetan dissident writer Tsering Woeser: Facebook removed her video of a Tibetan monk self-immolating. Days later, the same thing happened to famous exiled writer Liao Yiwu. Liao received a notice from Facebook saying that he had posted content that offended Facebook’s community guidelines. However, Liao had also posted a photo of his artist friend Meng Huang streaking in front of the Swedish Academy in Stockholm, in protest of the ongoing imprisonment of Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo. Liao believes that was the real reason his account was closed.
Days later, the Global Times, which is published under the patronage of the Chinese government, reported on the shutdown of Liao’s Facebook account. In an editorial, it admitted that this kind of account suspension normally only happens in China. Meng Huang’s naked photograph was not pornographic but political. Liao had even pasted an image of Mao Zedong’s head over Meng’s groin, with the provocative caption: “Meng’s little penis and old, fluffy Mao will both be recorded in history.” The Global Times editorial pointed out, “Freedom of expression in the West is not without its limits. It firmly protects its own principles. Liao and the Chinese government have conflicted, and sometimes his behavior cannot even be accepted by the Western media. To be in peace and harmony with him is a challenge, no matter where he is.”
Although Facebook has reactivated both Woeser’s and Liao’s accounts , the massacre at Charlie Hebdo has inflamed the discussion again. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg joined the “Je suis Charlie” protest, defending free speech. Yet Woeser and Liao doubt his sincerity. Woeser argued, “No, Mark Zuckerberg, you are NOT Charlie,” as reported by The Washington Post. Woeser believes that the clever Zuckerberg wanted to get credit from the Chinese authority, so that China’s ban on Facebook could be lifted in the foreseeable future.
Whether Zuckerberg is “Charlie” or not, the real question is how money and power determines who the Western world decides to align with: on the one side, an organized state terror that attacks “free speech” and human rights, while on the other, a huge market with opportunity for profit. As Liao Yiwu said, the Paris killers kidnapped the Islamic religion, and the Chinese government has kidnapped its country and its people, their religion, and their freedom. He admits that he is fearful of the state power and the possibility of violence, but as writing and free speech is his religion, he will continue his work.
If Zuckerberg means to be a true “Charlie”, then he should know that he has money and power enough to challenge China’s “state terrorism.” The bottom line is to sympathize with the victims and not collaborate with the perpetrators.