Alex Lo – When celebrated dissidents find the grass isn’t greener on the other side

Ai Weiwei joins a long line of dissenters such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Liu Xiaobo who became disenchanted by the West.

Alex Lo has been a South China Morning Post columnist since 2012, covering major issues affecting Hong Kong and the rest of China. A journalist for 25 years, he has worked for various publications in Hong Kong and Toronto as a news reporter and editor. He has also lectured in journalism at the University of Hong Kong.

Cross-posted from Pearls and Irritations

Picture by Jason B.

After criticising Israel for its scorched-earth military operation in Gaza and defending Palestinian human rights, Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei had his long-planned exhibition at the famed Lisson Gallery in London abruptly cancelled in November. When asked about the experience at the weekend on Sky’s Sunday Morning, a current affairs TV programme in Britain, the 66-year-old likened it to political censorship in China.

“I grew up within this heavy political censorship,” he said. “I realise now, today in the West, you are doing exactly the same.”

Referring to the suspension of two New York University professors for comments related to Gaza, he added: “This is really like a cultural revolution, which is really trying to destroy anybody who [has] different attitudes, not even a clear opinion. So I think that this is such a pity, that it happened in the West, so broadly in universities, in media, in every location. In universities or political sector – everywhere – you cannot talk about the truth.”

It’s a recurrent phenomenon. Celebrated dissidents from enemy states of the West find out the other side isn’t much better and may even be worse in some respects.

It would be almost heartbreaking when dissidents – such as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet-era novelist – realised they weren’t welcome criticising the West, and that their real value wasn’t in telling the truth as they saw it but only in serving Western propaganda against their own governments.

Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo died in Chinese prison. Despite being lionised in the West, he realised early on that it wasn’t all it was cut out to be after a brief stay in New York for an academic term at Columbia University early in his career, in 1988-89.

In fact, he left his generous accommodation at Columbia to support the protesters in Tiananmen Square. That decision sealed his fate. Had he stayed, he would likely have enjoyed comfortable exile, with a well-paid academic position, in the United States. But that was not the life he chose. In an essay written about his experience in the US, he criticised himself and his false idolisation of Western culture.

It covered a wide range of topics, but where he discussed transcendent values and why Lu Xun, the great modern Chinese novelist, died in despair – because Lu’s deep-rooted godless Chinese naturalism forbade any transcendent values – Liu might have revealed more about himself than he realised.

I don’t know if his criticism of Lu was fair or accurate. But his talk of sins and redemption, of self-obsession, pride and the need for sacrifice foreshadowed the rest of his tragic life. It was almost Christian.

It’s clear if Liu were born a Westerner, he would have been a fierce critic of Western culture, but since he was born Chinese, his dissent followed its own tragic national course. The essay, despite its hyper-self-conscious attention to the author’s own moods and attitudes typical of much of 20th century Chinese intellectual discourse, is deeply moving and well worth reading.

He wrote: “My position was that of a narrow nationalist trying to use Western culture to reform China. My critique of Chinese culture was based, however, on an idealised version of Western culture. I overlooked, or purposefully avoided, the limitations of the West, even those weaknesses of which I was already aware. I was therefore incapable of a higher level of critical examination of Western culture, which would focus on the weaknesses of mankind itself.”

He was merciless with his false idolisation of the West.

“All l could do was to ‘ingratiate myself’ with Western culture, glorifying it in a manner quite out of proportion to reality, as if it not only held the key to China’s salvation, but contained all the answers to the world’s problems,” he wrote.

“But now, looking beyond this, it is obvious that my idealisation of the West was a way of making myself out to be a veritable Messiah. I always despised people who assumed the role of saviour; now I realised that drunk on the notion of my own beneficence and power, I was playing – consciously or not – a role that I detested … I know that Western culture can be used at present to change China, but it cannot save humanity in the long run. For the weaknesses of Western culture highlight the congenital defects of mankind.”

The Westerners’ assumption of superiority was always there, even when they exercised rational self-critique, as opposed to non-Westerners who were assumed to be incapable of it.

“No matter how strident in their criticism of rationalism those in the West may be, no matter how strenuously Western intellectuals try to negate colonial expansionism and the white man’s sense of superiority, when faced with other nations, Westerners cannot help feeling superior,” he wrote.

“Even when criticising themselves, they become besotted with their own courage and sincerity. In the West, people can calmly, even proudly, accept the criticisms they make of themselves, but they find it difficult to put up with criticisms that come from elsewhere. They are not willing to admit that a rationalist critique of rationalism is a vicious cycle of self-deception. But then who can find a better critical tool?”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

In his memoirs written in exile in the US, Solzhenitsyn complained about “an uncomprehending and increasingly hostile West”, not just to the Soviet empire which he opposed, but to the Russian spirit which he thought he embodied.

“The insane difficulty of the situation is that I can’t ally myself with the Communists, our country’s butchers – but I can’t really ally myself with our country’s enemies either,” he wrote.

“And all this time I have no home ground to support me. The world is big, and there’s nowhere to go. Here, in America, I am not genuinely free, but again caged.”

Americans might find that strange, even ungracious of him. Wasn’t America the nirvana of human freedom? But the Russian writer distinguished between independence and freedom. America was huge, and in the woodlands of Vermont, he and his wife could find independence, but not real freedom.

The US left was – and arguably still is – fixated on abstract Marxism, not its actual practice, as far as Solzhenitsyn was concerned. The right was only interested when he criticised the Soviets but not when he rounded on the West or America. They were especially upset about his open celebration of his love of Russia and its deep spiritual civilisational mission.

Norman Podhoretz, an early influential neoconservative and initial supporter, eventually denounced his suspected antisemitism and Slavophilia.

Solzhenitsyn longed for Russia’s rebirth and was afraid that in the Cold War, the West would destroy not only the evil Soviet empire but spiritual Russia and contaminate it with its capitalism. He was not far wrong.

I have often thought if he were alive today, he would be someone like Alexander Dugin, the ultranationalist ideologue and philosopher sometimes described as “Putin’s brain”, who was the target of an assassination in 2022 that killed his daughter instead. Indeed, the two men looked alike with their unkempt beards.

Today, Solzhenitsyn would probably have exalted the sacred and unbreakable union between Ukraine and Mother Russia.The West should learn by now that celebrating other countries’ dissidents, especially those with great intelligence and integrity, is a double-edged sword.

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