[Viewpoint] Flirting with, um ... blasphemyRecently, Kim Jong-un, a 20-something-year-old youth, son of North Korea’s Dear Leader, was promoted from civilian to four-star general.
That’s pretty impressive. It took me three years in the U.S. Army to make it from civilian to Specialist 5th Class, about 14 rungs below a four-star general. But that was long ago.
Also in recent days, a 54-year-old criminal serving an 11-year prison term, Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize.
What a world we live in, where popinjays are raised up and decent men flung behind bars.
China’s reaction to the Nobel award was instructive. “Blasphemy” was the English word used to translate Beijing’s expostulations.
Blasphemy - cursing or denying God.
Atheism is supposedly the Communist faith, yet “blasphemy” offends Communists as much as it does any other believer.
When I was a correspondent based in Soviet Moscow years ago, I had the honor to have the Kremlin dismiss my body of work as “fables interweaving blasphemy with calumny.”
But if we take Beijing’s response seriously and not just as bluster, perhaps blasphemy is exactly what it sees in Liu’s activities.
If ultimate authority resides in the state, then any individual who refuses to worship (perhaps China would prefer “kowtow”) is indeed a blasphemer.
Liu’s crime was “inciting the subversion of state power.”
Any state will punish those who plot with foreign enemies or take up arms with the object of violently overthrowing the government.
But Liu’s blasphemy was to write, with other Chinese citizens, a manifesto.
Charter 08 (published in 2008) was written in imitation of Charter 77 (published in 1977), the manifesto by Czech and Slovak intellectuals that asked their government to live up to the promises of human rights spelled out in the constitution. Harassment, exile or prison terms were the signers’ rewards.
Here is the blasphemous introduction of Charter 08: “After experiencing a prolonged period of human-rights disasters and a tortuous struggle and resistance, the awakening Chinese citizens are increasingly and more clearly recognizing that freedom, equality and human rights are universal common values shared by all humankind and that democracy, a republic, and constitutionalism constitute the basic structural framework of modern governance.”
Rather turgid; hardly incitement to violence.
Let’s suppose that, 30 years ago, Korean dissidents had published a Charter 80. They would have been jailed and called blasphemers.
In fact, many Korean dissidents, foremost among them Kim Dae-jung, did publish such manifestos and suffered grievously for their blasphemy.
But look what happened in Korea and in Czechoslovakia, the blasphemers won. Kim and, in Prague, Vaclav Havel, became presidents of their countries.
It is untrue that “Asian values” and “Western values” are fundamentally opposed, at least at the level of upholding human dignity.
Liu himself expresses great confidence in China’s future.
“I firmly believe that China’s political progress will never stop,” he said, “and I’m full of optimistic expectations of freedom coming to China in the future because no force can block the human desire for freedom.”
In recent months, Westerners have lost - or at least wavered - the faith that Liu and the Nobel Peace committee affirm.
Perhaps we were too arrogant, some Western pundits are saying.
Look at China’s success and the floundering of Western nations in the economic crisis. Perhaps Western democratic institutions are not necessarily the end point for human society.
It is always good to see arrogance humbled. But the Nobel committee is telling us that even in these difficult times, in which China, where the state is primary and individuals exist only to serve the state, is not the wave of the future. It is a remnant of the past.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Korea could play a role in encouraging China to become a mature nation?
Korea has taken the same path from brutal autocracy and has learned that a lighter touch from the top leads to a happier population and a more stable government no longer needs the tool of repression.
So far, Korea’s recent history is to kowtow to its giant neighbor, as it did through the centuries when it was a tributary state.
A particularly shameful example was its organization three or four years ago of a gathering of all the world’s Nobel Peace laureates, designed to burnish Korea’s credentials as a proponent of peace - and, by the way, to exalt the former blasphemer Kim Dae-jung, subsequently a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
The whole scheme became an exercise in hypocrisy when another Nobel Peace Prize laureate, the Dalai Lama, was denied a visa to attend. You understand, the Chinese might frown.
Oh, well. Perhaps one day soon Korea will gain the confidence its successes have earned and will, quietly, tell the Chinese, with all due respect, that repression may be best for government functionaries in the short term, but not for national security.
Long-term state security is served by governments that acknowledge that in human society the people are primary, not the state.
To say otherwise is the real blasphemy.
Meanwhile, a pip-squeak of the third generation shall govern North Korea (if he has the moxie), and the sane world will dance attendance on his whim while his people starve and suffer.
Now there is a blasphemy, an offense against God, man and all that is decent.
One more fantasy: that South Korea and China might team up and, with a flick of a finger, consign the North Korean Kim dynasty to the dust bin of history.
(Oh, but you know, the geopolitical realities, and, um ... practical considerations and...)
Yes, I know. More blasphemy.
*The writer is former chief editor of the Korea JoongAng Daily.
By Harold Piper
More in Columns
China’s thin skin
The Korean War from China’s view
Who’s laughing now?
Fighting Chinese patriotism
The curse of the presidency