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The Power of China’s Powerless

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.