In my childhood, during the CR, there were no fun books to read, so one of my great entertainment pleasures was to tell and retell international political jokes. These were jokes I heard from others, or read in Reference News (参考消息,a Party newspaper my parents subscribed to). The subjects mocked by those jokes were, almost exclusively, the United States and the Soviet Union. Sometimes the jokes were so clever and funny my playmates and I would roll around on the ground laughing. Nobody then would have imagined that one day China itself could become a subject of political jokes.
In the vociferous reactions to this year's Nobel Peace Prize, there is a lighter side: a number of political jokes have been circulating on overseas Chinese websites. The following is my translation of one of those.
CNN: Mr. Wen, may I ask what is your opinion on dissident Liu Xiaobo winning the Nobel Peace Prize?
Wen Jiabao: Really? I have browsed many websites, but I haven't seen this news!
CNN: Have any Chinese won a Nobel Prize?
Wen: Yes, but they hold foreign citizenship. (Samuel C. C. Ting, Yuan T. Lee, Steven Chu, Daniel C. Tsui, Roger Yonchien Tsien)
CNN: Have any Chinese citizens won a Nobel Prize?
CNN: Has a citizen of New China won a Nobel Prize?
Wen: Yes, but he doesn't recognize his Chinese citizenship. (Gao Xingjian)
CNN: Has any person who recognizes his Chinese citizenship won a Nobel Prize?
Wen: Yes, but we don't recognize him as a citizen of China. (Dalai Lama)
CNN: Has any person who recognizes his citizenship of New China, and is also recognized as a citizen by the state, won a Nobel Prize?
Wen: Yes, but he is in a prison of New China.
It's hard to deny the cleverness used in the construction of this joke. In my circle of Chinese friends and acquaintances, a few feel it's funny and laugh (I am guilty of being one of these), but most don't. I have expected that some of the friends would not be enthusiastic about Liu Xiaobo, still I am a bit surprised by the overwhelming reaction, which is sadness. And their sadness makes my heart heavy. I suppose their reaction is not really to the joke per se, but rather about the whole situation. The reasons for such a reaction? "They (the West) are the judge, we are being judged!" "In a recent visit to China, I witnessed growing prosperity that changed my previous view. Just recall the unbearable poverty and hardship we lived through [during the CR]. To old friends who complain of their problems, I always ask, Do you want to go back to the old days? None can rebut. Of course problems exist, and there will only be more, but the problems are the companion of progress, gradually they will be solved." "Go your own way – let others talk!"
I want to stress that, those are real feelings, deep feelings, regardless of whatever labels you might be tempted to apply, whatever criticisms you might tempted to level. The intensity of such jolted me. I'll confess: as a fellow overseas Chinese, though one who constantly criticizes things, I feel torn by my friends' feelings. It has become emotionally difficult for me to analyze this, as I attempted before.
It seems that those friends view the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident as the West's judgmental attitude toward China. This reaction is the complete opposite from some dissidents who cheer for the West's recognition of their value. I find such a divide significant. Those friends of mine are ordinary people, mostly belonging to the middle class, a class that is also rapidly growing within China. Is the reaction of my friends representative? I don't know, but activists who aspire to change China can't afford to ignore this class and their feelings.
IMO, the leftist op-ed that is now "the talk of town" (as termed by ESWN) is a well-written but unilateral analysis of Liu Xiaobo's ideas. Personally, I agree with some of the things Liu has said, and disagree with others; that does not diminish Liu's value as a thinker in my eye . But whether you buy into the criticism of Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong or not, their op-ed does raise an important question as to how much a dissident's ideals resonate with the non-elite majority of Chinese. (I've expressed a similar concern in this space before.) The answer to that question might not be as positive as hoped by some activists and their supporters.
As to Liu Xiaobo, I found in The China Beat an article by Paulina Hartono, titled "Symbols: Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize," having something quite interesting to say. I especially want to echo this line:
"But I hope that in the years to come, Liu Xiaobo will not be seen merely as a contentious symbol, a tool utilized by various powers for condemnation or glorification purposes, but as an important human being who had something to say."