New America Media – For most Chinese intellectuals, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo is a puzzling choice. Liu, who is serving 11 years in prison for subversion of state power, is being honored internationally as a human rights pioneer. But in China, he is seen as a sell-out to the West, embracing Western values at the expense of Chinese culture.
Once an admired avant-garde figure of contemporary literature and political thought, Liu has long since fallen into the extremist fringe of Chinese intellectual life.
In the literary and art circles of China in the late 1980s, Li Zehou and Liu Xiaobo were the two most influential figures, expressing opposite viewpoints that aroused a firestorm in political ideology. Their clash centered on the extent to which China should adopt Western values and lifestyles. The philosopher Li advocated a merging and coexistence between Chinese and Western cultures, while Liu launched a scathing critique of the Chinese classical tradition.
It seems strange that the global media should refer to Liu Xiaobo as "the first Chinese Peace laureate", since he adamantly rejects the culture of the land of his birth. According to his own account, Liu reinvented himself as a child of Europe. His dream has come true, now that the Nobel Committee recognizes him as one of their own.
Liu won instant fame with his improvised speech, "The Crisis of New Age Literature", given at a literature conference in 1986. In it, he boldly denied the value of rationality and collective consciousness, arguing instead for personal sentiment and individualism. From that point, his articles went on to further devalue China's traditions while promoting the culture of the West.
His writings appealed to intellectuals in the wake of the Cultural Revolution and struck a sympathetic chord in academia. With new admirers and foes, Liu quickly made his mark as the "Manchurian Tiger" and "Dark Horse" of contemporary literature.
He demonstrated a mastery of Western philosophy, psychology and sociology. In "Naked Approach to God: Aesthetics and Subconscious", Liu cites Freud's psychoanalytical structures of id, ego and superego to warn of the hazards of rationality to an essentially irrational human nature.
Freedom, he argues, can be realized only though immediate perception – concepts similar to those of Romanticism and later the hippie movement in the West.
A pioneer in the period when China made contact with the external world, Liu veered into fanaticism with his uncritical adoption of Western modern thought.
In his essay "The Tragedy of Enlightenment: Critique of the May Fourth Movement", he argued that the May Fourth Movement – a major student-led protest in 1919 – failed because its leaders did not adopt wholesale the Westernization required to modernize China. The essay turned out to be a premonition of the ideological debates among the student factions during the 1989 Tiananmen protests.
In Liu's world view, Western values are perfection, while China is hopelessly backward. Everything Chinese must be broken down. Only through demolition can the quintessential human spirit be rescued and elevated.
Liu led a scorched-earth campaign against Confucianism and Taoism. His arguments – reminiscent of the radical anti-traditionalism of the Cultural Revolution – assailed the values of community in Confucianism for depriving individuals of democratic rights. He said that Chinese traditional values serve to idolize the powerful elite so that people willingly surrender their rights.
His image of himself is one of a savior – a modern-day Moses who will deliver the Chinese people out of China and into the Western world. Along his path of deliverance, however, Liu sinks into contradiction by trying to replace one tradition with another. Like a convert to a foreign religion, he worships a pantheon of foreign saints – Rousseau, Freud, Nietzsche and Sartre – while demonizing classic Chinese thinkers like Confucius and Lao Tzu, and even modern revolutionists like Dr. Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong.
Across the developing world today, including China, intellectual leaders are proposing new theories that stress indigenous modernization efforts rather than lessons from former colonial masters. Progress and democracy are being built not on the basis of cultural self-hatred, but on the foundation of the legacies left to us by our ancestors.
Certainly there remains a need for radicals to challenge our nation's past. Yet Liu Xiaobo failed China by rejecting the genuine achievements of its civilization and culture, thereby deeply offending Chinese pride. The Chinese take their traditions seriously when dealing with an offending critic.
For Liu the Nobel laureate, the larger tragedy was not so much a prison sentence as it is his own inability to recognize the treasures behind the veil of the Chinese classics.
Channa Li is a student in the Chinese Classics department at Renmin University, specializing in Tibetan language and literature.