Thursday, 9 December 2010

A letter Liu Xiaobo will never get

Dear Liu Xiaobo

Congratulations on your Nobel Peace Prize, and on having no enemies, even when your own government think you are so dangerous that they have locked you up.

Of course they are right; you are dangerous to them. If the freedom of speech and the non-violence you espouse became a reality in China, the power of the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party would melt like snow. I believe they say in the context of free speech and uncontrolled media that a spark can start a forest fire. Again they are right. Look at how something quite silly can become a craze on the the internet - or how a picture of a dead girl from someone's phone can become a symbol that threatens the theocrats of Iran.

It may be a very long time before your words of peace and freedom can be heard by everyone in China, but it could never happen if you and others had done nothing. Maybe your words have something to teach us here in the West too - me for one, but our governments as well. Because there is another way in which your government is partly right: we talk about the pot calling the kettle black, meaning that you can't call someone dirty if you are not very clean yourself. Your government is very sensitive to criticism from the west about such things as the deaths in Tianamen Square. And they are very quick to point out our own defects. We abhor torture - but we practise it in secret. We denounce dictatorships but do deals in private. We make promises, then break them, say one thing but do another. This is true, but I am not in prison for pointing it out.

However, this is telling you nothing you don't know (especially as you are not allowed to read it). So who then am I? A teacher like you. Like you I am not teaching at the moment, but this is because of economics not politics (though it is indirectly about politics). But I am in a comfortable house, not prison. True the boiler has stopped working and it's minus 5C outside, but this hardly matters. We've got a fire and I can have a shower at my neighbours' tomorrow. The big news here in the UK (apart from the snow and ice) is that the Government has, with an interestingly small majority, passed a bill that means it will be very expensive to be a university student here in future, and then you will be in debt for a very long time. Your education will either hang round your neck like a weight or you will give up the idea of education. To me, as a teacher, this is a shameful act by my government as I believe that education should be an entitlement not a privilege.

Last year, I had a question from one of my students that I couldn't answer at the time. "What have you learned," she asked, "from your students?" I was thinking about that today, about you, your prize and your imprisonment, and I decided that  the answer was this: my students have taught me that education is the freedom to ask questions, and that a teacher may have to cross a bridge just to hear those questions.

And all over the world there are very powerful people who dislike questions, because questions are sparks.

With very best wishes

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