December 12th, 2013
12:17 PM ET

China's Mandela problem

By Phelim Kine, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Phelim Kine is the New York-based deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are his own.

It’s the Chinese government’s Nelson Mandela problem.

When news broke of Mandela’s death on December 5, China’s state media joined in the global torrent of tributes for the former political prisoner turned beloved president of South Africa. President Xi Jinping praised Mandela as “an accomplished politician of global standing,” while state-owned China Central Television described him as “an old friend of China.” Glaring omissions in those early tributes were references to “freedom,” “democracy” and any mention of Mandela as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

That was no accident. For the ruling Chinese Communist Party, observing Nelson Mandela’s death is a fraught exercise in verbal contortions to distance him from China’s own imprisoned Nobel laureate and advocate for peaceful social change: the writer Liu Xiaobo.

On December 11, China’s state-owned Global Times went on the offensive with an accusation that “Western media” had “deliberately cast a light on the imprisonment of Liu and praised him as ‘China’s Mandela.’” The objective? To deflect from the striking parallels between the globally revered former South African president and the quiet, self-effacing Chinese writer in Jinzhou Prison in northeastern Liaoning province.

But this is easier said than done.

Both Mandela and Liu symbolize the courage of individuals who challenge abusive status quos against overwhelming odds. Mandela faced down the “apartheid” system of discriminatory, forced racial segregation implemented by South Africa’s National Party in 1948. Liu challenged the Chinese Communist Party’s refusal to respect the rights and freedoms embodied both in international law and China’s own constitution. Both men’s stances were catalyzed by brutal state violence and impunity. In Mandela’s case, it was the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre, in which police gunned down 69 unarmed anti-apartheid protesters in Sharpeville township. Liu’s public disaffection with the Chinese government crystalized with the June 1989 massacre, in which People’s Liberation Army troops shot dead untold numbers of unarmed civilians in Beijing and other cities around June 3-4, 1989.

Both Mandela and Liu are associated with documents that exposed the lack of popular legitimacy of abusive governments by outlining political alternatives that made human rights and democracy the priority. Mandela was one of the organizers of the 1955 opposition African National Congress conference that produced South Africa’s Freedom Charter, which defied apartheid with the assertion that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.” Liu Xiaobo is one of the drafters of Charter ’08, a manifesto that explicitly advocated putting human rights, democracy, and the rule of law at the core of the Chinese political system.

Those challenges had a price. Nelson Mandela spent 27 years behind bars on charges of treason, sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state, while a Chinese court in 2009 sentenced Liu to an 11-year prison term on spurious “subversion” charges. After Mandela’s imprisonment, his captors banned the publication and circulation of any of his photos in an effort to purge him from the collective public memory. China’s state media has similarly censored references to Liu, his published works and his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize victory – both online and in the print media.

The families of both men have suffered for their activism. Mandela’s wife and daughters lived under decades of tight police surveillance and eventual internal exile to the remote Afrikaner town of Brandfort. Chinese police, meanwhile, have reportedly tormented Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, since his Nobel victory by placing her under a punitive and unlawful form of near-solitary confinement to her Beijing home. In August, a Beijing court sentenced his brother-law-law, Liu Hui, to an 11-year prison term on fraud charges that his family says are baseless and politically motivated.

You’ll find no such comparisons in China’s state media, though. The Chinese government has instead spun Mandela’s legacy in line with propaganda goals: Mandela as an admirer of China’s Communist revolution and Sun Tzu’s classic Art of War military tactics treatise. As the media coverage of Mandela recedes following his December 15 burial, the Chinese government will breathe easier and hope that the awkward comparisons to Liu will be buried with him.

But Mandela’s lesson – and warning – to the Chinese government is that brave individuals who speak truth to abusive regimes are more powerful than the walls and poisonous invective of their captors. That warning applies equally to foreign governments too often tempted to soft-pedal concerns about the Chinese government’s human rights abuses – including Liu’s imprisonment – in pursuit of perceived economic benefits.

Liu Xiaobo gave an implicit nod to Mandela at his trial on December 29, 2009 by confidently asserting, in the face of the Chinese state about to imprison him, that he too would eventually prevail.

“I have long been aware that when an independent intellectual stands up to an autocratic state, step one toward freedom is often a step into prison,” he said. “Now I am taking that step; and true freedom is that much nearer."

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Topics: Africa • China • Human Rights

soundoff (48 Responses)
  1. Jal

    Mandela's legacy is one for the ages indeed. The realities of his life both scare and inspire. That is why I am reluctant to comment on Nelson Mandela.

    December 12, 2013 at 2:30 pm | Reply
    • anna

      Mandela promised everything and gave nothing!

      They are worse off now than during the white rule.

      December 13, 2013 at 2:24 pm | Reply
  2. Maersk

    What this kwok zucking writer did not tell us is that Mandela gave his middle finger to him and his uncle.

    December 12, 2013 at 3:50 pm | Reply
    • ✠RZ✠

      And speaking of uncles, Maersk, any chance of your commenting on what happened to Jang Song Thaek ?

      December 13, 2013 at 6:34 am | Reply
      • banasy©

        Kim Un is cleaning house. 6 out of 7 of daddy's advisors are gone...

        December 13, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
      • ✠RZ✠

        @ banasy, I just wanted to hear China's take on the matter in the eloquent terms of an authentic and well informed Chinese nationalist, with a Danish handle of course.

        December 13, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
      • Maersk

        What does Jang Song Thaek have to do with China. Who gives a phuck that he is not going to eat kimchee again?

        December 14, 2013 at 4:58 am |
      • ✠RZ✠

        @maersk, thanks for the honest insight. I can only suspect GPS will likely be posting an article on this incident soon.

        December 14, 2013 at 7:33 am |
  3. John

    I taught English in China for a year and I marvel at the speed with which that country has developed economically. They use Capitalism well now, but the Communist Party has the fatal flaws of (1) being in power so they want to keep it, above all else, and (2) thinking they have all the answers already. Maybe they do, but no-one will ever know if there is a better solution to a problem unless they open up and listen.

    December 12, 2013 at 4:58 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      And the biggest fatal flaw of your demo-of-crazy is that a fool was able to steal the presidency, started two wars that killed so many people, and tripled the national deficit. What is so funny is that the fool didn't even know the difference between errection and Iraqtion. May be a kwokhead like you should listen to what the Chinese have to say before you open your kwok zucking mouth.

      December 12, 2013 at 7:06 pm | Reply
      • jonquil123

        ...and your leaders, Maersk, are trying to start a war but The Chinese People can't do anything about it. China is not Afghanistan, full of goat-herders with sticks and a handful of terrorists with dirty bombs; The USA will not be as gentle with China, as we've been with Afghanistan.

        December 13, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
      • johnson valdeville

        Maersk, you are SUCH A TOOL!!!! I swear to god, you spend your life making lame comments on CNN posts that you think people actually care to read! You are the biggest freakin loser I have ever seen! Get outside and get some sunshine and fresh air! Try talking to some girls (or guys) once in a while! Ugh...you are SUCH A FREAKIN LOSER!!!

        December 14, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
    • Maersk

      johnson valdeville the American dickkhead, have you ever thought for a moment may be you are a tool yourself, a tool (dudo) that your uncle sticks in his azz for entertainment?

      December 16, 2013 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  4. Davidake

    Nobel Price (Award) for Mandela is right but giving the price to dalai and liu xiaobo is a biggest joke. dalai has dong nothing for peace but a master of slavery. What Liu xiaobo has done to the peace, world peace or Chinese peace? Nothing. If every desident can be awarded a Nobel Peace award, it should not be called Peace Award but "Desident award". It is shame that such prestige award has been used by west against country like China and Russia that have different society and government. It is falacy to say that Chinese government does not care Chinese people and their humanright by bring out million of millions of people out of poverty in so short time. Compare to so many so called elected governments, Chinese government has done a marvellous job. If you can not see this, you either blind or prejudice.

    December 12, 2013 at 9:44 pm | Reply
    • Hanna Montana

      Here are my thoughts:

      Take the money the communist government in china is paying you to plaster pro-china propaganda across the internet and invest in a few English classes. Your spelling and grammar is horrific!

      Or, at least, post using your real name.....we know you're chinese.

      Come on now!

      December 13, 2013 at 5:15 pm | Reply
      • davidake

        Here is my thought, hanna. If you can read Chinese as the level as I can read English, you can go to Chinese website and see how majority of Chinese see dalai and liu xiaobo. Your western people are funny. In the one hand, you hypes to respect other people's right to speak out but on the other hand, you are against the different opinion. Are you saying that only you can speak freely but other people can not? If other people say something you do not like, they must be paid by somebody to express their own opinion? What the logic is this? Come on, admit it, you are a hypocrite.

        December 13, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
      • davidake

        Also hanna, please have some imagination and say something new, instead of "50 cents" or "paid by Chinese govt". They are too old. Please more creative.

        December 13, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
      • Maersk

        I suppose you have taken the money that your uncle has paid you for fingering your smelly and hairy kitten?

        December 14, 2013 at 5:01 am |
      • Archie

        You do know the Chinese internet is censored, of course, David?

        There's not much use reading Chinese comments on sensitive topics, because the ones that don't tow the party line, or contain words the party has decided are off limits, cease to exist.

        December 14, 2013 at 7:20 am |
      • djia002

        Chinese or American, what is your point? I do't know what kind of fool you are, but you certainly doesn't represent America people

        December 16, 2013 at 12:44 am |
      • Dao XiPing

        Hanna, there are 2 million chinese internet infiltrators. Paid by the chinese government to post comments like this here.
        You have just encountered them. their purpose of commenting is to make the chinese look good to the western media. Why do they do that you say? because china is like a rotten apple, polished on the outside, and a lot of worms and feces in the inside.

        December 17, 2013 at 5:23 pm |
    • baihe

      wumao niubi

      December 16, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Reply
    • Tokos

      I agree with you Davidake.
      The real propaganda on this earth come from western countries. They speak everywhere about democracy, that means their opinion, and they don't care about that in the facts when it comes to their companies benefits.
      So they say they like Mandela (after removing his name form a terrorists list in 2008!!!) but hey try to kill or kill people who try to remove their people from their greedy.
      They say always speak in the place of the people, and of course they know better than everybody on this earth what is the best for them! But in general when people decide to express themselves it's another song like in Venezuela, or Bolivia!
      You make Hiroshima, you support Apartheid and thousand crimes in the world and you talk about freedom, democracy?
      Leave Chinese alone and take care of you growing poverty due to the banksters!

      December 16, 2013 at 9:43 pm | Reply
  5. Jon

    Chinese people are weird...

    December 12, 2013 at 11:03 pm | Reply
    • davidake

      jon, Chinese see you weird as well.

      December 14, 2013 at 12:54 am | Reply
    • Wen Pao Pao

      Not a good thing to generalize. Makes you look stupid and not credible!

      December 15, 2013 at 7:38 pm | Reply
  6. Karl

    WOW... I see this opinion piece has angered a few 50 cent propagandists haha

    December 12, 2013 at 11:45 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      I can also see you have zucked your uncle's limply kwok and swallowed another load of kum for a dollor.

      December 16, 2013 at 4:48 pm | Reply
  7. Var

    What a utterly biased and unnecessary article.

    Why would or should the Chinese speak about Liu when the moment is about Mandela.
    Mandela was a known and respected figure by a wide following in S Africa even before he was imprisoned.

    Liu has NO such support base, to equate the two is ridiculous and fallacious.

    And where is the author's remark about the fact that it was the US/CIA who helped imprison Mandela in the first place and now are on the bandwagon of how he was a friend all along.

    What utter hypocrisy. This seems like an article sponsored by the CIA/Western propaganda machine.

    December 13, 2013 at 2:49 am | Reply
  8. j. von hettlingen

    China eulogised Mandela from a distance. Premier Xi didn't attend the memorial service. His vice-president went instead.

    December 13, 2013 at 10:15 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Mandela visited Beijing in 1992, which irked Taiwan, as it still had diplomatic relations with South Africa at that time. Mandela's loyalty to Taiwan for its support to the African National Congress prompted him also to visit Taipei in 1993.
      His then "Two Chinas" policy was at odds with Beijing's "one China" stance. Then in 1998, South Africa switched diplomatic recognition to Beijing.

      December 13, 2013 at 10:21 am | Reply
      • Maersk

        Unlike your uncle, at least the Chinese have never considered Mandela a terrorist.

        December 14, 2013 at 5:07 am |
      • djia002

        with the help from CIA, SA government put Mandela in Jail at the very early stage

        December 16, 2013 at 12:49 am |
  9. Andrey

    That article is stupid. China has zero problem with Mandela. That analogy between Mandela and whoever that Chinese guy is was totally made up by the author: nobody else can see it!

    December 13, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      Isn't it kind of funny that this kwok zucking writer did not compare Mandela with Crazy Horse, the native American who would love to get rid of the "Trash" that drifted across the Atlantic and polluted his native land ever since? If it was up to Crazy Horse, he would definitely send the "Trash" back to the incinerators in Europe and not to be recycled.

      December 16, 2013 at 11:18 pm | Reply
  10. marc

    did Mandela really specify China or is that just part of our bashing using his death to criticize others? I seriously doubt he was supportive of killing 600 thousand in iraq on fabricated lies a worse human rights violation than any one else has done in the past 10 years

    December 13, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Reply
  11. owwow-man

    Everybody must notice that the trolling article bashers have bad chinese propaganda english right? I mean dont they think we know they are a bunch of 'kowk zuckers' lol

    December 13, 2013 at 4:39 pm | Reply
    • djia002

      what is your propaganda here then, don't like hear different voice?

      December 16, 2013 at 12:51 am | Reply
      • baihe

        it's not a different voice...it's the same ccp propaganda lines over and over again in broken english on any western news report mentioning china in a less than favorable light...as if anyone was actually fooled by these suddent upsurges of random ccp sympathizers...smdh.

        December 16, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
  12. jack

    Mandela fought against ultra-right wing ideology; Liu against the leftist.

    December 13, 2013 at 9:20 pm | Reply
    • Wen Pao Pao

      I have not got a clue what is left wing and what is right wing. Care to explain? Ideally, which side should one be?

      December 15, 2013 at 7:42 pm | Reply
  13. Maersk

    China is death delight of Mandela

    December 14, 2013 at 3:39 am | Reply
  14. daniel

    Foooeee!.....did i leave the iron on!

    December 14, 2013 at 6:34 am | Reply
  15. Marisa

    As long as China keep Liu Xiaobo in prison, the more shame China will have. The people of South Africa are also not stupid and they all know that China pays off the current leaders like Zuma and his cronies. Let's hope that South Africans get rid of those Chinese controlled politicians and elect leaders who care about South Africa.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:58 pm | Reply
  16. outspoken

    When Mandela was released from prison he was tamed dog with no teeth.

    December 15, 2013 at 2:25 pm | Reply
  17. zephon

    Washington Post, CNN and NYT all running articles with a similar theme.

    What US government propaganda bureau dreamed up the stupid idea that Mandela is like a Chinese criminal is laughable.

    They just want to forget the fact that Mandela and Mao were ideologically aligned. Both being fervent communists working to overthrow colonial aspirations that tore their respective countries apart.

    Shame on CNN, WP, NYT for not telling the true story and working so hard for our anti-chinese propaganda that cannot realize facts from fiction.

    December 17, 2013 at 1:35 pm | Reply
  18. Ian | disorderedworld

    As China commemorates the 120th anniversary of Mao’s birth, an examination of Mao’s time in power provides an insight into his pathologically disordered personality, and the devastating impact that Mao’s 27 year reign of terror had on Chinese society. http://t.co/PwYXR0WXBP

    December 27, 2013 at 3:37 pm | Reply

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