The West, I mean the non-Chinese world, is in danger of hustling Liu Xiao-Bo into a martyrdom that is more dramatic than the merely heroic stance he intended. To spend 11 years in prison, from age 54 to 65 is a heavy sentence; but perhaps even that is not heavy enough for the ghouls who rub their hands and gloat at the awfulness of the Chinese regime. 'We few, we happy few' who live under representative democracy with a free press, and central heating, are well cushioned against the realities of life in the monolithic communist or ex-communist states of China and Russia, and remain happily ignorant of those realities. We flaunted capitalism and encouraged the dismantling of the Russian communist machine with whoops of triumphant glee, and look at the devastation that has resulted! Are we now setting-to to repeat that devastation in China?
How many of our experts in democracy and penmanship remember the Taiping rebellion, and the awful success of the messianic Hong Xiu-Quan, self-styled brother of Jesus, who stormed through southern China in the mid nineteenth century in an attempt to establish the 'Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace' ? Millions slain, 20 million dead. Or even the more recent 20-year long struggle between Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Ze-Dong when "more than a million died"? China is a different place, with a different history, and above all a different psychology. It is foolish, presumptuous, and dangerous, to interfere; to inject little bits of 'foreign' thinking into a country that has for millennia governed itself by its own laws for its own perceived benefits.
It is not since 'time immemorial' (1189 A.D.) that we in Britain have enjoyed free speech; that is a relatively recent innovation. Today we can call for the abolition of the monarchy, if we want to, or make jokes about the prime minister, because no-one will pay any attention. Some person could doubtless call himself the younger brother of Jesus without raising a revolution, or much more than a frown. During the 17th century that would have been a step too far. In 1697 the 20 year old Edinburgh student Thomas Aikenhead was hung for 'blasphemy'; it was a cold night and the lad, walking home from a drinking session, said he wished he were in the place Ezra called 'hell' so he could warm himself. Even riding into Bristol in front of a crowd of enthusiasts crying "Holy, holy, holy" got James Nayler thrown into prison in 1656. However, both these punishments can be judged as harsh, even for their times, because, though people were offended, neither episode led to armed rebellion, public disorder, or loss of life.
I doubt that "freedom of speech" was ever won by violent protest; it is surely won by exactly the opposite; by quiet listening and mature reflection. So, instead of clamouring about Liu Xiao-Bo, crying "holy, holy, holy", and placing medals on empty chairs, why don't we indulge in a little mature reflection. Charter 08 draws attention to the fact that the Chinese government signed two important international human rights conventions in 1998; in 2004 it amended its constitution to include the phrase "respect and protect human rights"; in 2008 it promised to promote a "national human rights action plan." So, what is that action plan? We are listening.