by John West, Asian Century Institute
China’s Nelson Mandela is still in jail, or exile, or soon to be so. Although we do not yet know who he or she is, that person could also change the shape of the world.
Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday expressed deep grief over the passing of former South African President Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95.
Lauding Mandela as “a world-renowned statesman,” Xi noted that Mandela led the South African people through arduous struggles to the anti-apartheid victory, making a historic contribution to the establishment and development of the new South Africa.
Mandela, who visited China twice, was also one of the founders of the China-South Africa relations, and an active champion of bilateral friendship and cooperation, said the Chinese president.
The Chinese people, Xi said, will always remember Mandela’s extraordinary contributions to the development of the China-South Africa ties and the cause of human progress.
Xi Jinping’s expression of grief is notable for the absence of two words, “freedom” and “democracy”. Indeed, Mandela’s passing is an awkward moment for the Chinese leadership. Because what he stood and fought for all of his life were the antithesis of what China’s Communist Party stands for.
And perhaps what was most important of all in Mandela’s life was that once he won his victory, he did not seek revenge. Rather, he promoted forgiveness and reconciliation — again, rare virtues in Communist politics.
The parallel between South Africa and China may not be far-fetched. China practices a type of economic and political apartheid, where the 80 million or so members of the Communist Party live a life of privilege, access to wealth, and corruption, which is supported by social and political repression of the rest of the population.
Who could be China’s Nelson Mandela?
While there may never be a Chinese figure quite like Nelson Mandela, there are literally hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Chinese dissidents who are either in jail, under house arrest, under surveillance, or living in exile. They include people like: Nobel Prize winning writers Liu Xiaobo and Gao Xingjian, food safety activist Zhao Lianhai, blogger and human rights activist Zeng Jinyan, and human rights activist Harry Wu.
Human Rights Watch recently reported that since February 2013 the Chinese government has arbitrarily detained at least 55 activists, taken into custody critics and online opinion leaders, and increased controls on social media, online expression, and public activism, rolling back the hard-won space China’s civil society has gained in recent years.
Wang Gongquan, billionaire business man, who has turned to human rights activism, was recently held on suspicion of disturbing public order, sending a strong signal that China’s new leadership will not tolerate any member of the rising entrepreneurial elite using their resources to agitate for democratic reform.
And then there is Bo Xilai, XI Jinping’s nemesis, who is now locked away, after a horrid trial. Though corrupt, Bo may be no worse than many other Communist Party leaders, and he is immensely talented. In Chinese politics, a comeback can never be ruled out.
In sum, the list is too long, and growing by the day.
And the enormous social and political discontent which is being bottled up in jails and exile could very well produce a Chinese Nelson Mandela. Watch this space!