An extraordinary protest took place Monday in China’s southern city of Guangzhou. Unlike the almost-daily local protests across China – which are mainly over land grabs, corruption, workplace abuses, and pollution – this one was simply about telling the truth.
Large crowds of people took to the streets in Guangdong Province to support journalists working at an investigative newspaper, Southern Weekly. The journalists themselves had gone on strike last week after a local Communist Party propaganda chief censored their New Year’s editorial – without telling them.
The editorial itself was bold enough, asking that the government live up to the clear liberties promised in China’s Constitution. It read: “Only if constitutionalism is realized and power effectively checked can citizens voice their criticisms of power loudly and confidently, and only then can every person believe in their hearts that they are free to live their own lives.”
But the strike by the editors and the street demonstrations that followed are just the kind of action that the famed anticommunist dissident Václav Havel of the former Czechoslovakia once called “living in truth.” They gave concrete existence to freedom.
In his 1978 work “The Power of the Powerless,” Mr. Havel wrote: “If the main pillar of the [totalitarian] system is living a lie, then it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to it is living the truth. This is why it must be suppressed more severely than anything else.”
And sure enough: On Jan. 3, China’s party machine issued an order to the state-controlled media not to mention the censoring of the editorial.
The moral courage of the Chinese journalists led a group of Chinese scholars to issue an open letter stating that the “Southern Weekly has spoken with a clear sense of truth, and has spoken on the people’s behalf.” Students at Sun Yat-sen University also protested in a letter.
And two famous Chinese actresses microblogged in favor of the newspaper. One of them, Yao Chen, sent her 31 million followers a quote from former Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn: “One word of truth outweighs the whole world.”
This cascade of protest may not result soon in any Chinese Arab Spring. The Communist Party has powerful levers of control. It is especially on guard now during a leadership transition. But it shows the difficulty for the party to continue clinging to power through lies and manipulation of the truth – especially as the economy slows down and reduces the incentive of the Chinese for conformity.
Shattering official lies can come in many ways, Havel advised – open letters, hunger strikes, ignoring commands. He knew of what he spoke. He spent five years in prison and was honored after the fall of the Soviet empire by being elected president of his country.
His favorite saying was “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate.”
China has changed greatly since its 1989 pro-democracy uprising. With the Internet and the advance of freedom in so many other countries, the Chinese can more easily see through the party’s lies. Living the truth is becoming easier.