Should anyone still doubt that history always repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, second time as farce, an incident that took place last Wednesday in Prague might very well change his or her mind.
On 6 January 1977, Václav Havel, then a leading Czech dissident as well as a playwright banned by the communist regime, was arrested along with Pavel Landovský and Ludvík Vaculík for writing a petition that called for the democratisation of the regime and publishing it in a samizdat version. Their arrest contributed to the cause – the Charter 77 manifesto reached the west apace and at some point was even more widely discussed abroad than in Czechoslovakia. Ultimately, 12 years after the dissident movement’s emergence, the Velvet Revolution wiped out the oppressive regime and Havel was soon to become the country’s president.
Thirty-three years later, history’s ironic pen writes a rather peculiar postscript to the democratic outbreak of 1989. On 6 January 2010, Havel showed up with fellow communist-era dissidents at China’s embassy in Prague with a new petition, this time calling for the liberation of Liu Xiaobo, a leading Chinese dissident. Sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment last December, Xiaobo was convicted on charges of subversion, which, in the language of the human-rights-allergic regime, stands for the crucial role that he had played in drawing up and distributing the Chinese version of the Czech manifesto, entitled Charter 08.
As the Velvet Revolution’s veterans arrived at the embassy, a literally closed-door reception was awaiting them. Nobody, let alone the ambassador himself, bothered to take the open letter from Havel’s hand, a rather unusual situation considering that he had been first Czechoslovakia’s, and then the Czech Republic’s president for almost 13 years. In the end, the protesters were forced to leave the petition in the embassy’s letterbox. All of this on the 33rd anniversary of the Charter’s emergence. Ignored by one communist regime as a dissident, as an ex-president, Havel would still be ignored by another.
Without a shred of doubt, this incident is part of a bigger picture. Beijing’s gradually increasing contempt for Europe’s human-rights discourse, already apparent during Akmal Shaikh’s disgraceful trial, is becoming more pronounced as the west’s economic leverage over China has been replaced by China’s leverage over the west. What possible sanctions could the west, let alone the UK, launch in order to force respect of basic human rights on China? The Chinese regime has a very precise sense of balance, and it is no coincidence that Shaikh’s execution took place now; he was the first European citizen to be put to death in China in more than half a century.
Were Václav Havel to be reborn as a Chinese dissident 20 years after 1989, his voice would certainly be crushed not only by China, but also by shabby smartphone manufacturers. It seems that nowadays, every single tech company expanding to the Chinese market would block the Charter 77 app in advance before anyone could download it. Beijing’s grip on the internet will only tighten, and even though an oppressive government quashing the voice of dissent is no new phenomenon, western corporations’ complicity in persecuting the dissidents surely is. And we are all getting used to it.
Hence, Liu Xiaobo’s oppression in 2010 is more severe than that faced in 1989 by Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia, Lech Wałęsa in Poland or other dissidents from behind the Iron Curtain. Despite the internet, Twitter, Facebook, mobile phones and all that technology has to offer, modern dissidents are in no better situation than their predecessors were 33 years ago. On the contrary, the likes of Xiaobo seem to be more on their own than the 1989 revolutionaries were. Perhaps it is time to dust off the good old samizdat.