What Havel means to China’s dissidents

Václav Havel spoke directly to Chinese dissidents, writes scholar and human rights activist Xiaorong Li. He knew intimately what a writer like Liu Xiaobo risks by criticizing a powerful authoritarian regime.

I have tried to write something to commemorate our beloved friend Václav Havel since his passing last Sunday. Yet I find it a struggle to describe this melancholy grief. Words escape me as I try to weigh this profound loss.

This sense of loss stems from my full awareness of what Havel means to the Chinese struggle for freedom and democracy. It is only a small part of his life’s work.  Yet it is so significant that its impact cannot be adequately estimated for many generations to come.  As in other far-reaching corners of the world, many of us, I and my friends in the Chinese human rights community, are reflecting on Havel’s legacy and we will remember him not just as an outspoken intellectual, a politician with moral integrity, a fellow freedom fighter full of wisdom, a writer with a sharp pen and sense of humor, but also as a friend.

I learned of Havel’s poor health a couple of years ago. The winters particularly take a toll on him, so it was heart breaking to watch him deliver an open letter in person to the Chinese Embassy in Prague to protest the harsh sentence of Liu Xiaobo on that cold winter day on January 6, 2010 (above).

Thanks to Czech friends at People in Need, I had an opportunity in November 2010 to thank Mr. Havel in person for his strong support to Charter 08 and successful efforts to nominating Liu Xiaobo for the Nobel Peace Prize. Though he was frail, he received me and two other Chinese activists in his Prague home.  Typical of his modesty and shyness, he quickly turned this visit into a focused intellectual inquiry about our views of the prospects for democratic transition and growing civil society in China. After we said goodbye, we were gripped by an urge, perhaps in order to remember that moment longer, and turned to ask whether we could get a hug from Mr. Havel.  Request granted.  That was the first and the last time I met him.

To Chinese liberal intellectuals, democracy and human rights activists, Havel speaks directly to us.  We feel he knows very intimately what a dissident writer like Liu Xiaobo fa ces as he or she criticizes a powerful authoritarian regime and tries to speak the truth. I have been thinking, and I believe many of my friends are too: How could we, like Havel, live in truth, letting love and truth conquer hatred and lies? Havel is still speaking to us: He lives on, among us. 



Democracy Digest » What Havel means to China’s dissidents.

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