It’s the Chinese government’s Nelson Mandela problem.
When news broke of Mandela’s death on December 5, China’s state media joined in the global torrent of tributes for the former political prisoner turned beloved president of South Africa. President Xi Jinping praised Mandela as “an accomplished politician of global standing,” while state-owned China Central Television described him as “an old friend of China.” Glaring omissions in those early tributes were references to “freedom,” “democracy” and any mention of Mandela as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
That was no accident. For the ruling Chinese Communist Party, observing Nelson Mandela’s death is a fraught exercise in verbal contortions to distance him from China’s own imprisoned Nobel laureate and advocate for peaceful social change: the writer Liu Xiaobo.
On December 11, China’s state-owned Global Times went on the offensive with an accusation that “Western media” had “deliberately cast a light on the imprisonment of Liu and praised him as ‘China’s Mandela.’” The objective? To deflect from the striking parallels between the globally revered former South African president and the quiet, self-effacing Chinese writer in Jinzhou Prison in northeastern Liaoning province.
But this is easier said than done.
Both Mandela and Liu symbolize the courage of individuals who challenge abusive status quos against overwhelming odds. Mandela faced down the “apartheid” system of discriminatory, forced racial segregation implemented by South Africa’s National Party in 1948. Liu challenged the Chinese Communist Party’s refusal to respect the rights and freedoms embodied both in international law and China’s own constitution. Both men’s stances were catalyzed by brutal state violence and impunity. In Mandela’s case, it was the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, in which police gunned down 69 unarmed anti-apartheid protesters in Sharpeville township. Liu’s public disaffection with the Chinese government crystalized with the June 1989 massacre, in which People’s Liberation Army troops shot dead untold numbers of unarmed civilians in Beijing and other cities around June 3-4, 1989.
Both Mandela and Liu are associated with documents that exposed the lack of popular legitimacy of abusive governments by outlining political alternatives that made human rights and democracy the priority. Mandela was one of the organizers of the 1955 opposition African National Congress conference that produced South Africa’s Freedom Charter, which defied apartheid with the assertion that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.” Liu Xiaobo is one of the drafters of Charter ’08, a manifesto that explicitly advocated putting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law at the core of the Chinese political system.
Those challenges had a price. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years behind bars on charges of treason, sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state, while a Chinese court in 2009 sentenced Liu to an 11-year prison term on spurious “subversion” charges. After Mandela’s imprisonment, his captors banned the publication and circulation of any of his photos in an effort to purge him from the collective public memory. China’s state media has similarly censored references to Liu, his published works and his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize victory– both online and in the print media.
The families of both men have suffered for their activism. Mandela’s wife and daughters lived under decades of tight police surveillance and eventual internal exile to the remote Afrikaner town of Brandfort. Chinese police, meanwhile, have reportedly tormented Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, since his Nobel victory by placing her under a punitive and unlawful form of near-solitary confinement to her Beijing home. In August, a Beijing court sentenced his brother-law-law, Liu Hui, to an 11-year prison term on fraud charges that his family says are baseless and politically motivated.
You’ll find no such comparisons in China’s state media, though. The Chinese government has instead spun Mandela’s legacy in line with propaganda goals: Mandela as an admirer of China’s Communist revolution and Sun Tzu’s classicArt of War military tactics treatise. As the media coverage of Mandela recedes following his December 15 burial, the Chinese government will breathe easier and hope that the awkward comparisons to Liu will be buried with him.
But Mandela’s lesson – and warning – to the Chinese government is that brave individuals who speak truth to abusive regimes are more powerful than the walls and poisonous invective of their captors. That warning applies equally to foreign governments too often tempted to soft-pedal concerns about the Chinese government’s human rights abuses – including Liu’s imprisonment – in pursuit of perceived economic benefits.
Liu Xiaobo gave an implicit nod to Mandela at his trial on December 29, 2009 by confidently asserting, in the face of the Chinese state about to imprison him, that he too would eventually prevail.
“I have long been aware that when an independent intellectual stands up to an autocratic state, step one toward freedom is often a step into prison,” he said. “Now I am taking that step; and true freedom is that much nearer."
Phelim Kine is the New York-based deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are his own.