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Remembering Liu Xiaobo, Chinese Crusader for Freedom

July 17 2017

The Chinese poet, literary critic, political thinker, and fearless dissident Liu Xiaobo—who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010—died last week while still under custody. He was imprisoned in 2008 for expressing opinions the Communist regime considered dangerous, and he had been arrested multiple times in the preceding two decades. In a 2012 essay, Simon Leys described his ideas and career:

After Mao’s death, universities were at long last allowed to reopen; in 1977 Liu joined the first group of students admitted again into higher education; . . . eleven years later, after obtaining his doctorate, he was appointed to a teaching post [at Beijing Normal University]. His original mind, vast intellectual curiosity, and gifts for expression ensured a brilliant academic career; quite early, he reached a large audience extending far beyond the classroom, and acquired the reputation of an enfant terrible in the Chinese cultural world. . . . Liu’s reputation as an original critic of ideas [eventually] brought him invitations abroad. . . .

While Liu was in New York [in 1989, teaching political science at Barnard College], the student [dissident] movement in Beijing continued to develop. . . . Liu sensed that a crisis would soon be reached, and he made a grave and generous decision: he gave up the safety and comfort of his New York academic appointment and rushed back to Beijing [to join the protestors at Tiananmen Square]. He did not leave the square during the last dramatic days of the students’ demonstration; . . . after martial law was imposed, he negotiated with the army in the hope of obtaining a peaceful evacuation of the square. . . .

At the [2010] Oslo ceremony, an empty chair was substituted for the absent laureate. Within hours, the words “empty chair” were banned from the Internet in China—wherever they occurred, the entire machinery of censorship was automatically set in motion.

Foreign experts in various intelligence organizations are trying to assess the growing strength of China, politically, economically, and militarily. The Chinese leaders are most likely to have a clear view of their own [considerable] power. If so, why are they so scared of a frail and powerless poet and essayist, locked away in jail, cut off from all human contacts? Why did the mere sight of his empty chair at the other end of the Eurasian continent plunge them into such a panic?

Read more at New York Review of Books

More about: China, Human Rights, Nobel Prize, Politics & Current Affairs, Totalitarianism

Israel’s Success Has Surprised Everyone

April 20 2018

On the eve of Israel’s decision to declare statehood, 70 years ago, the CIA estimated that a Jewish state couldn’t hold off its Arab enemies for more than two years, while the famed Haganah commander Yigael Yadin told David Ben-Gurion that their chances of victory were fifty-fifty. Daniel Gordis describes just how wildly the country has managed to outpace expectations:

In 1948, there were some 650,000 Jews in Israel, who represented about 5 percent of the world’s Jews. Today, Israel’s Jewish population has grown ten-fold and stands at about 6.8 million people. Some 43 percent of the world’s Jews live in Israel; this population overtook American Jews several years ago and is now the world’s largest Jewish community. . . .

Beyond mere survival, the other challenge that the young Jewish state faced was feeding and housing the hundreds of thousands of Jews who were flocking to its borders. At times, financial collapse seemed imminent. Food was rationed and black markets developed. Israel had virtually no heavy machinery for building the infrastructure that it desperately needed. Until Germany paid Holocaust reparations, the young state’s financial condition was perilous.

Today, that worry also feels like a relic from another time. Israel is not only a significant military power, but also a formidable economic machine. A worldwide center for technology that has more companies listed on the Nasdaq than any country other than the U.S., Israel’s economy barely hiccupped in 2008. The shekel, its currency, is strong. Like other countries, Israel has a worrisome income gap between rich and poor, but fears of an economic collapse have vanished.

Israel has become an important cultural center, vastly disproportionately for a country whose population approximates that of New York City. When the five finalists for the Man Booker literary prize were announced last year, two were Israelis who write in Hebrew: David Grossman and Amos Oz. Grossman won. . . . Today, Americans and Europeans alike wait hungrily for new episodes of Israeli shows like Fauda, while others (like Homeland and The A-Word) have been remade into American and British series.

On the occasion of Independence Day, Israelis are fully conscious—and deeply proud—of the fact that their country has exceeded the ambitions of the men and women who founded it seven decades ago.

Read more at Bloomberg

More about: David Ben-Gurion, Israel & Zionism, Israeli economy, Israeli Independence Day, Israeli literature, Israeli society