The Power of China’s Powerless

Whereas Kim Jong-il’s demise reminds us that all people are equal before death, Vaclav Havel’s passing reminds us that the value of life will eventually gain respect. Indeed, for Chinese concerned about how to live in truth under a post-totalitarian system, he remains the exemplar.

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.

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