The Utterly Indefensible

We engage in a lot of debate on this blog, and anyone who reads it knows that I personally have some pretty strong opinions. Even so, most of the issues that we debate do have shades of gray, and there are reasons — sometimes logical ones — for many of the things the Chinese government does.

But not everything. We rarely talk about the things the government does that are utterly indefensible, completely cruel, and entirely black-and-white full-on evil.

So we debate about Liu Xiaobo, his “crimes” — were they crimes? — and his NED connections — do they matter — but we rarely talk about his wife, Liu Xia. For those who aren’t aware, Liu Xia has been under house arrest since the day after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Xiaobo last fall. She has been denied access to friends, family ((for the most part; supposedly she has had a few family visits, although it’s difficult to be sure since she herself is incommunicado)), phones and the internet. She has managed to get online once, though (from The Guardian):

Her only known contact with the outside world came in February, when she managed to get online briefly and told a friend that she was miserable, that no one could help her, and that “my whole family are hostages”.

Of course, many Chinese dissidents experience similar treatment, but here’s the thing: Liu Xia is not a dissident. Her only crime is being Liu Xiaobo’s wife. She’s been under house arrest for nearly a year now, and yet she has never been charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one. She is by all definitions — including that of the Chinese legal system — entirely innocent, and yet her life has been taken away from her because of who she chose to marry.

Another example: Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist and lawyer who remains under house arrest in Linyi. Given that Chen has completed his jail sentence and should legally be a free man, his own detention is indefensible, but Linyi authorities are also holding his entire family under house arrest. This includes his daughter Kesi, who can no longer attend school because she’s not allowed to leave the house. Netizens who have attempted to visit Chen’s family have been harassed, beaten, detained, and threatened. (For frequent updates on these efforts, follow @pearlher, @wlyeung, @bendilaowai etc. on Twitter).

For the sake of simplicity, let’s focus on Chen’s daughter, Chen Kesi. She’s currently being detained by authorities because of the crimes of her father ((which he has already served time for; according to Chinese law he should be a free man)). More concerning is that she can’t attend school, an injustice that threatens to influence the course of her entire life. Of course, we all know how dangerous students can be, but Chen Kesi isn’t exactly a rebellious college student. No, in fact, she’s barely in primary school. That’s right, the Chinese government is detaining a six-year-old girl.

Detention really isn’t the right word here, though. Perhaps being held hostage is more apropos. Liu Xia and Chen Kesi aren’t being held for any crimes they committed, they’re being held to scare other people into silence. They’re being held hostage, and if one day they’re freed, others will most certainly be held in their place. The faces may someday change, but the song remains the same.

Perhaps we don’t debate these things as much because there is simply nothing to debate. By any reasonable standard, the detention of innocent people is unconscionable and evil. The concept of guilt by association has a long history in China, of course, especially guilt via bloodlines, but this is not the dark ages. Nor are these isolated local incidents; rest assured the central government is fully aware of these detentions, like as not at the highest possible levels.

The fact is, the authorities detain people like Liu Xia or six-year-old Chen Kesi for two reasons:

  1. As a threat to other dissidents. Harassing, threatening, and detaining a dissident’s loved ones sends a pretty strong message: ‘If you follow this path, we will fuck with the people you love. We do not care if they’re innocent or not. We do not care if they’re young or old. Fuck with us and we will fuck you you, and we will not be gentle.’ As reprehensible a strategy as that is, it is quite effective — in fact, I have seen it work firsthand. People may be willing to give up their own lives in the pursuit of justice (or whatever), but how many are willing to give up the lives of their wives? Their parents? Their daughters? Very few, and who can blame them?
  2. Because they can. As effective as it may be in deterring dissent, detaining an innocent child is a strategy that would not play well in public. Luckily, it need not be public in a country where the media — even social media — can be controlled. Regardless of their opinions about Chen himself, can you imagine the reactions on Weibo and elsewhere if it were widely reported that the government was detaining his daughter and preventing her from attending school? It would be a PR nightmare — and anyone who was watching the news this summer knows that the Chinese government is pretty terrible at PR in the face of public dissent. But none of that matters. The news can be blacked out in the mainland, and foreign reporters who discuss it can be painted as anti-China forces who are nitpicking small issues while failing to note how fast China has developed. The few Chinese who know about the issue are welcome to have their discussions on Twitter, where no one else can see. There’s really no risk for the government; why not detain Chen Kesi if it can help keep him and other dissidents in line?

The obvious answer to that would obviously be “because you are a human being with a functional conscience,” but I don’t believe there’s a real human conscience anywhere near either of these cases.

I wanted to write about this not so much because it’s newsworthy ((Although as I type this, word is spreading on Twitter that a netizen group has reached Chen’s village and is being attacked by village thugs, or possibly plainclothes police))as because I rarely do; we rarely do. Perhaps it’s because there’s not much to debate, but personally I think it’s because it’s just too depressing to think that there’s a six-year-old girl being denied an education because some old men are scared of a blind lawyer and a few other critics of the system.

0 thoughts on “The Utterly Indefensible”

  1. @Custer – People who know me well describe me as an absolutist. Their probably right, but I just can’t see how one totally unjust act (being placed under extra-judicial arrest as a form of torture against your husband) differs from another totally unjust act (being under arrest because you wrote articles advocating democracy). To use a geeky analogy (this is China Geeks, after all), the situation is a digital one, not analogue.


  2. @ FOARP: Well, they’re two different people, so obviously you’d agree that there is some difference. I was never arguing one was more unjust than the other, just pointing out the standards I used to narrow the scope of what I was writing about. I agree Liu’s arrest was equally unjust but addressing that, and then by extension the many thousands of similar cases was going to bog down the post with arguments we’ve already had elsewhere and that I didn’t want to distract from the cases of Liu Xia and Chen Kesi specifically.


  3. @Custer – Understood, but that does kind of lead to my other point, which I tried to make above but I guess didn’t do a good job of because, reading back, it’s not all that clear: When you craft your arguments to avoid unreasonable and groundless arguments (“Liu Xiaobo is a US agent” etc.), you risk the appearance of recognising those arguments as reasonable. This is, of course, not your intent.


  4. While I can hardly say I agree with much of the editorial slant on your blog, Mr Custer, I think that in this case you have it spot-on. Holding a six-year-old under house arrest because of who her father is seems rather retrograde, and not in a good way…


  5. I am waiting for pugsters respons:)
    I am sure there is a great excuse for this!
    It is probably because of some nasty things the US does. Maybe this girl is a US agent as well…


  6. Sorry – didnt see the previous 50 comments. You can always count on pugster. One advice to CCP progaganda: you should train your people better because this man is making fools of you. Or perhaps you are just making their arguments look silly? Maybe you are smarter that we have been giving you credit for! Either way in some perverse way I still enjoy your comments pugster.


  7. It reminds me of the situation with the current Panchen Lama of Tibet. I have been informed by reliable internet Chinese nationalist sources that Tibetan religious figures only have problems with the government if they start it by getting involved in subversive politics. Strange then, that Gendün Chökyi Nyima hasn’t been seen or heard from (i.e. he is either under tight house arrest or is dead)


  8. since May 1995, when he was 6 years old. So sad that he had become a sedition-plotting ring leader at such a young age.

    Actually, the only real defense of something like this is pure utilitarianism: not, these people deserve to be hurt, but, hurting these people is necessary for a very important and good cause. That doesn’t fit in with Western liberal (in the broadest sense) political ideals at all, but a lot of people don’t care about that.


  9. Hi Otto,
    it might be a good cause for the CCP. Of course, that has no relationship whatsoever to whether it is a good and important cause for Chinese people.

    The injustice you describe, like the ones Custer mentioned, are not merely affronts to “Western liberal political ideals”. I think most reasonable people of just about any political persuasion would find guilt-by-association and detention without cause to be fairly abhorrent.


  10. Well, I agree that people would find it abhorrent if they were personally involved in the case, but people mediate their sense of personal ethics through their understanding of political values. If a child in the U.S. is malnourished, people would find it abhorrent to not try to help if they were personally involved with the family. But people will have a variety of opinions about what government policies should be toward childhood malnutrition or other symptoms of poverty.

    Don’t get me wrong, I personally am completely committed to Western liberal political ideals — that’s mostly because I want to minimise the contradictions between my native moral sentiments and what I expect from government policy. I just don’t think it’s the only way to look at things. It might be the most moral way to look at things, but discussing morality with people who don’t agree with you about it is a fool’s errand.


  11. To Otto,
    it’s the age-old question. Are there in fact universal morals/values, or not. The typical CCP refrain is that there are not, which allows them to justify their contravention thereof. My position is that any assessment of morals/values be derived from those held by the people, rather than looking at those that are merely imposed/enforced by government.

    I do think there are some things that all reasonable people would find abhorrent, like childhood malnutrition as you suggest. THere is a difference between whether you know of a specific example or not. But i think the difference lies not in whether they find it abhorrent or not, but in how vigorously they are prepared to do something about it. I think people would find childhood malnutrition abhorrent whether it afflicted their neighbour or a stranger, but they might be more likely to actively help their neighbour as opposed to a stranger.


  12. It looks like Chen Guangcheng’s six year old daughter may be being allowed to attend school…perhaps due to the recent internet furor, or perhaps merely by coincidence. Such humanitarians, the CCP.


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