Vaclav Havel in Taipei,Nov.2004.Photo by Bei Ling

Source: Wall Street Journal (12/29/11):

Reading Havel in Beijing
Institutionalized deceit is corroding China today, just as in
Czechoslovakia in the 1970s.

Vaclav Havel’s death earlier this month was mourned in the Czech Republic
and Slovakia as the passing of a national treasure. He rose to prominence
first as one of the few men willing to speak honestly about the regime
that oppressed his country in the 1970s, and later became the man who
brought that country peacefully to freedom. A student of mine from the
Czech Republic wrote in a touching note this month that Havel had led his
country to “live within the truth.”

But Havel belongs not only to Eastern Europe. He leaves a long record of
moral support of democracy and human rights in China. And perhaps nowhere
today do his writings have as much resonance as in China.

Word of Havel’s death came just as I was finishing grading final papers
for a seminar I teach on the 1989 Tiananmen protest and its aftermath.
Some students from China, even with free access to information and freedom
to inquire, still reject all kinds of evidence and choose to believe in
the official account. Many others, more sophisticated in some ways, are
mesmerized by the wealth and material accomplishments of a rising China.

Havel warned of this, that relativism and consumerism could strip people
of their humanity, and subsequently of their moral responsibility to one
another. In 1989, he denounced the June Fourth Massacre in the strongest
of terms.
At the same time I was reflecting on the semester, the news came that Kim
Jong Il, North Korea’s dictator, had died. Scenes of extreme mourning for
Kim in the streets of Pyongyang again brought home the perniciousness of
lies in such regimes, as I was reminded of Mao Zedong’s death 35 years

When Mao died in 1976, my father invited his best friend to our home,
closed the door tightly, and opened the only bottle of wine we had. The
next day, my parents took me to the public memorial service where we wore
black armbands. Many people cried as if they were heartbroken. As a little
girl, I was confused by the adults’ expressions‹everybody looked so sad in
public, while my father was so happy the night before.

Years later, right after the Tiananmen crackdown, I went to school wearing
a black armband and was told by my teacher, “If you don’t take that off,
no one can protect you from now on.” I took off the armband reluctantly
and tried to hold back my tears. I thought of my father’s contrasting
facial expressions when Mao had died. For two generations, we were not
allowed to express our basic human feelings of sorrow and joy.

For many years, first in Canada, later in the U.S., I studied Tiananmen,
and I tried to be invisible, circumscribed and self-censored. I dodged
questions from my college friends about my research topic. I worried about
getting my family in China into trouble, and wondered if I would ever be
allowed to go home again.

When my work became better known, angry young Chinese students accused me
of lying about historical facts, while thousands of online messages
labeled me a “national traitor” who criticized China to get money from
“the West.” I’ve been constantly reminded of the feelings of helplessness
on the day of June 4, 1989. The Chinese government has been remarkably, if
temporarily, successful at enforcing its official account of the Tiananmen
protests as a Western conspiracy designed to weaken China, hence
justifying its crackdown as “patriotic” and paving the way for China’s

On the surface, Tiananmen seems completely remote and irrelevant to the
reality of a “rising China,” but every year on its anniversary, the
government clamps down with intense security. The topic remains a
political taboo and the official verdict unchanged. Outside China, the
world’s memory seems to fade with the rise of Confucius Institutes all
over the world, and free China Daily on our newspaper stands.

Havel understood how corrosive this would be. While more and more
politicians and businessmen conveniently parrot the official argument that
China is historically, socially and politically unique, and that the West
should not interfere in China’s internal affairs, Havel remained a
consistent defender of universal human rights.

He supported the Charter 08, co-authored by Liu Xiaobo in China and
inspired by Charter 77. In his 2010 open letter to the Chinese President
Hu Jintao calling for the release of Liu Xiaobo and all political
prisoners, Havel wrote: “A country’s materials and spiritual future is
undermined when its citizens are not allowed to act, associate, think and
speak freely.”

When Chen Guangcheng, the blind human rights lawyer, was first put under
house arrest and beaten up several years ago, I quietly translated his
wife’s letter for help without speaking out. When Liu Xiaobo was taken
away by the police a day after I heard his voice over Skype, I quietly
printed out his essays for students without speaking out.
When Cui Weiping, professor of Beijing Film Academy and Chinese translator
of Havel’s essays, was banned from leaving the country last year to join
me and other colleagues on a panel “Against Amnesia,” I quietly cancelled
her ticket and hotel reservation without speaking out. When Liao Yiwu, a
dissident writer, could not leave the country earlier this year, I quietly
informed friends who helped set up lectures for him without speaking out.

When I was forced to remove the black armband in 1989, I thought that
would be the end of it. Bodies had been crushed, lives destroyed, voices
silenced. They had guns, jails and propaganda machines. We had nothing.
Yet somehow it was on that June 4 that the seeds of democracy were planted
in my heart, and the longing for freedom and human rights nourished. So it
was not an ending after all, but another beginning.

“But who should begin?” Havel wrote. “Who should break this vicious
circle? The only possible place to begin is with myselfŠ. Whether all is
really lost or not depends entirely on whether or not I am lost.” Vaclav
Havel as an individual was powerless, but he proves to us the power of the

Here is my tribute to Vaclav Havel. My mourning will be my action; if we
want light, we must conquer darkness.

Ms. He is a lecturer in the Department of East Asian Languages and
Civilizations at Harvard University

Click the photo to read an interview with Rowena He in Chinese and English


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