LONDON – No sooner had I finished reading an article that eulogized Václav Havel, the playwright turned dissident turned peaceful revolutionary turned president who had just died, than two subsequent news stories set Havel’s extraordinary career in context: the death of Kim Jong-il, North Korea’s pornography-addicted and nuclear-armed supreme leader, and the peaceful protests against land expropriation by the villagers of Wukan in Guandong province, southern China.
If Havel ever had any moments of doubt about his lasting positive impact on the world, I hope he was able to see reports from Wukan before he died. In that fishing village of 6,000, the “power of the powerless” that Havel promoted as a means to undermine totalitarian rule was demonstrated anew, and with such enormous dignity and discipline that it has galvanized China like no protest since those in Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989.
Kim, in a sense, was the anti-Havel, lacking not only moral scruples, but even the usual dictatorial concern for how a country is managed. His death made me recall that of Mao Zedong, with all the mass hysteria – real and feigned – that accompanies the demise of a self-anointed god.
But Mao’s death did at least end the era of caesarism in China. Because he had no son to succeed him, Mao appointed a five-person politburo to do the job. Its members, which included his nephew, Mao Yuanxin, his mistress, Zhang Yufeng, and Jiang Qing, his last wife – were as incompetent at governing as Kim, but, following the disaster of the Cultural Revolution, antagonism to them in the military and other state institutions was too widespread for them to last. They, and the Gang of Four (of which Jiang Qing was a member), were soon ousted.
China’s transit from caesarism to despotism, and then from Marxism to capitalism, has been fortunate for China’s citizens. North Korea’s bad luck is that, despite his incompetence, Kim Jong-il seems to have managed to bequeath the dynasty he inherited to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. Given other North Korean institutions’ apparent indifference to the mess that the Kims have made of their country, there seems scant chance of any serious change of course being initiated from within. A fight for power, however, might yet spell the end of the regime.
North Korea is a kind of looking-glass world to Havel’s dictum that, to survive under totalitarianism, one must live in truth. Fortunately for Havel, Czechoslovakia’s small-minded communist rulers were also small-minded in their lies. But when every aspect of society is built, as in North Korea, on a Big Lie, and then an Even Bigger Lie, it is probably hard to maintain one’s sanity, let alone the ability to live in truth.
In any case, Kim Jong-un’s reign is unlikely to last or be as certifiably crazed as those of his father and grandfather. Communism, thanks to the lure of successful market economies and the example set by people like Havel, has put the system under such external strain that Kim III has nowhere to turn for effective help. Indeed, even the two regimes most eager to maintain the Kim dynasty – China’s and Russia’s – are feeling pressure from their disaffected but, it now seems, not-so-powerless populations.
In Wukan, simple villagers were unafraid to challenge the might of the local party and police when officials stole their land for a development project. In Henan, policemen have gone into the streets demanding that human rights be protected. In Dalian, hundreds of thousands of people protested against the construction of petrochemical plant.Unlike what has happened so far in Wukan, the Dalian protest was crushed, but it – like the tens of thousands of other protests across China last year – signaled to the ruling party that ordinary Chinese are no longer interested only in the politically passive pursuit of material gain.
In Russia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s situation is much the same. Following the sham elections in early December, massive protests erupted in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. And those marching were not the usual impoverished rabble-rousers, but Russia’s new middle classes. Like the villagers of Wukan, they have simply had enough of official dishonesty.
North Koreans have suffered coercion for a long time, and although they are brainwashed to be docile and loyal to Kim’s dynasty, you just cannot imagine how they will remain at the beck and call of Kim Jong-un, who has no credentials, military or otherwise, to rule. Given its increasingly isolated international position in Asia, if North Korea’s internal conflicts become acute, China may find it difficult to behave toward Kim Jong-un with anything but cold and anxiety-ridden indifference.
And recall that it was indifference to the non-reforming East European communist regimes on the part of Mikhail Gorbachev and the Soviet Union that ultimately sealed their fate and delivered Havel from a prison cell to Prague Castle. Havel, of course, was a beneficiary of such indifference, but he never practiced it, remaining a fighter for truth and freedom throughout his life.
For Chinese concerned about how to live in truth, Havel remains our exemplar. The Charter 77 movement that he founded provided the template for men like the imprisoned Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who helped to found Charter 08, which proclaimed that Chinese, too, could live in dignity and freedom.
Kim Jong-il’s demise reminds us that all people are equal before death. Havel’s passing reminds us that the value of life will eventually gain respect.