The spark that could start a prairie fire in China

(This article,  part of a package of stories on the Nobel Prize award for jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, was published in DNA on October 10, 2010. The other article, which explores whether the award represents a global ‘push-back’ against China’s muscle-flexing, can be accessed here).

Venky Vembu

As China’s best-known AIDS activist who frequently exposed governmental cover-up of health disasters, Wan Yanhai has paid a high price for his integrity. He was sacked as public health official and detained thrice in 12 years – until, earlier this year, he fled to the US to escape more “harassment” from “more than 10 government agencies.”

Today, from his refuge in the US, Wan shares the unbounded joy of Chinese social and political activists over the Nobel peace prize for his good friend and fellow-activist Liu Xiaobo, whose political vision he subscribes to. “I think of the prize as a kind of catalyst in a democratic chemical process,” he told Sunday DNA.

China’s revolutionary leader Mao Zedong famously said that a single spark could start a prairie fire. Today’s political campaigners in China similarly liken the award for Liu to an Inception-like idea which, when implanted in the brain, could inspire countless others and validate the harsh struggle of rights activists campaigning for change. 

“This prize is a great encouragement for Chinese people and a recognition of the struggle of the Chinese dissident community,” political activist and blogger Wen Kejian told DNA from his home in Hangzhou. “It will create enormous momentum and bring greater political pressure on the Chinese regime.”

Liu’s non-violent campaign for political and democratic rights in China, which he formulated in the Charter ’08 document in 2008, has inspired tens of thousands of Chinese people. Peng Yanhan, a 25-year-old in Guangzhou, sees him as a “future political leader” – at least in spirit, in the same way that he inspired pro-democracy student protestors at Beijiing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Wan, one of the earliest signatories to Charter ’08, believes that with the award for Liu, the “general environment for pushing the development of democracy in China is pretty good.” The challenge, he adds, is to build capacity, which was lacking in Chinese civil society. “Just like you need technicians to run a machine, you need ‘social technicians’ to run social movements,” he says.

Activist-blogger Wen, however, says that the critical mass for such a democratic movement may already be building. “We should not underestimate the number of people who will be inspired by the news (of the award)… In any case, it doesn’t need the entire 1 billion people of China to stand up to demand basic human rights and political freedom: all it needs are a few million determined citizens, and that’s already happening.”

None of the activists call for a violent overthrow of the regime: in fact, they repeatedly emphasise they’re only campaigning for “non-violent” and peaceful transition to a society where “universal human values” are acknowledged. And while they concede that China has made some progress over the past 30 years in establishing personal freedoms of ordinary citizens, they believe that much work remains to be done.

“The power dynamics in China remain unchanged,” points out Wan. “The government still dominates and controls everything.”

Yet, for activists like Peng, the award for Liu has already meant some momentous changes. “The mere fact that more and more ordinary people in China have come to know that there are still such activists (like Liu) who fight for all of us and for a better society offers a hope for the future,” she says.


About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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2 Responses to The spark that could start a prairie fire in China

  1. Pingback: Beijing’s muscle-flexing faces a pushback | It's only words…

  2. Pingback: Why China’s voice thunders, and India’s is a whisper | It's only words…

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