The Bohemian National Hall in New York, September 27, 2018
I feel privileged to have the honor of presenting Liao Yiwu with the Disturbing the Peace Award, given annually by the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation to a courageous writer-at-risk acting in the spirit and tradition of Vaclav Havel.
Liao Yiwu differs in many ways from Vaclav Havel. Havel was a playwright and essayist, while Yiwu is a storyteller, a writer who has extensively interviewed and distilled the essence of the stunning life stories of hundreds of men and women who have lived at the margins of Chinese society over the past century.
Havel’s characters are middle-class people trapped in the suffocating bureaucratic maze of communist control instruments in what he called post-totalitarian Central Europe. In contrast, Yiwu’s characters are an array of outcasts and oddballs, from martyred Christian believers and victims of totalitarian repression to professional mourners and corpse walkers, a peasant emperor, a manager of public toilets, a blind musician, a leper, a former Red Guard, and many more.
Even Liao’s stories about more conventional people illuminate life and suffering at the bottom rung of Chinese society, such as the one about a retired official who described the unspeakable horrors he witnessed during the manmade famine of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s, when thirty million people died, and who said simply: “I think the Communist Party owes an honest explanation and apology to the Chinese people, especially the peasants.”
Another difference involves the pivotal year of 1989. For Havel, 1989 meant the Velvet Revolution and his spectacular rise to the presidency of Czechoslovakia. For Yiwu, the year is forever associated with the Tiananmen massacre and the poem by that name that he wrote and then recorded, invoking the spirit of the murdered students with ritualistic Chinese chanting and howling. He then produced a video sequel called “Requiem” that landed him in prison for four years.
But the similarities between Havel and Yiwu are far more important than the differences. Each of them was drawn into politics almost inadvertently, because their art brought them into conflict with a dictatorial regime that could not tolerate independent expression or a truthful portrayal of people and society.
Each of them has understood that such a system, because of its aversion to truth, is vulnerable to the power of words, which Havel said can shake “the entire structure of government,” and also to the power of stories, which Yiwu said “has let the world know about the real China behind the economic boom – a China indifferent to ordinary people’s simmering resentment.”
And each of them has believed in the importance of human freedom and free expression, which Havel believed was an innate impulse of all human beings. Yiwu has said that “my…starving for freedom is stronger than my physical craving for food.”
Most concretely, Havel and Yiwu are linked by their respective relationships to Liu Xiaobo. Yiwu was a longtime friend of Liu Xiaobo, a fellow writer and a signatory of the many petitions that Liu would circulate for democracy and human rights. The most important of these was Charter 08, which was inspired by Havel’s Charter 77 that was issued 31 years earlier. Havel embraced Liu Xiaobo’s mission and struggle, and on the 33rd anniversary of Charter 77 on January 6, 2010, he personally delivered a letter to the Chinese Embassy in Prague protesting the arrest of Liu Xiaobo two weeks earlier. Havel then joined with the Dalai Lama and other world leaders in calling for Liu Xiaobo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded to him later that year. Liu was in prison and couldn’t attend the Nobel ceremony, and Havel continued to demand Liu’s release until his own death a year later.
The Chinese regime also held Liu’s wife Liu Xia under house arrest, and it was because of the persistent lobbying of the German government by Liao Yiwu, her old and close friend, that she was allowed to leave China and join him in Germany last July, one year after Liu Xiaobo died in a Chinese prison.
Like her husband, whose death we continue to mourn and whose legacy remains an inspiration to freedom-lovers the world over, Liu Xia is also a Hero of Truth, and it is a source of immense joy that she is with us this evening.
In “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel said that the oppressed always contain “within themselves the power to remedy their own powerlessness.” The communist dictatorship in Beijing is a much more repressive system than the one that Havel resisted in Prague, and it is getting more repressive every day. It is “neo” not “post” totalitarian, and it is using digital tools of control and surveillance, such as facial-recognition technology, that were not available to the communist regimes in Central Europe.
So we don’t know if “living in truth” will be able to empower the powerless in China. But Liao Yiwu suggests that it may be sufficient; and he may be right, because the stories he has told depict a humanity that is far too resilient and spiritually indestructible to succumb indefinitely to the arrogance and cruelty of tyrants.
“I have the responsibility,” he has said, “to make people understand the true spirit of the Chinese, which will outlast the rule of the totalitarian government.”
Liao Yiwu has fulfilled that responsibility. He has done so by writing in truth and living in truth, and by disturbing the spurious peace of totalitarianism in China. It is therefore our very great honor to give him this Havel award, which he has so richly earned.