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Why Liu Xiaobo Matters

By Vicki Zhang

When I first heard about Liu Xiaobo, he had already been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010. I had left China six years prior, my life mired in existential struggles typical for immigrants. I immediately called my father in Shanghai. “Do you know anything about this man? How come we’ve never heard of him?”

“I’ve heard of him,” Dad told me, with a hint of gloating. “You have to do some serious digging on the Internet. Most people in China will never know anything about him. Even the articles I do find say the guy is controversial at best.” A pause on his end of the line. “You know how it is. They are running those pieces, calling him a separatist, a man of deep self-hatred who regrets being Chinese. Dalai Lama praised the man so he must be a bad element too. Of course, it’s propaganda — perhaps a few things he had said that was taken out of the context. But it’s working. He’s either unknown or thoroughly discredited here.”  

After that conversation, I did some serious digging on the other side of China’s Great Firewall. I learned that he was one of the “Four Gentlemen” in the summer of 1989 who risked their own lives negotiating with the Army, and who prevented a possibly larger-scale massacre. I learned he was in and out of prison numerous times for political “crimes” after 1989, and yet repeatedly refused the political asylum offered by various Western governments and insisted on fighting for democracy at home. I learned he was one of the authors of Charter 08, a manifesto circulated in 2008 calling for genuine political reform in China, and for which he was arrested and sentenced to eleven years in jail — an ultra harsh sentence even by the CCP’s own standards. I read his proposal on building a “a federated republic” in China — his love for his country palpable on every page — and how with a few sick twists, those words could be “interpreted” as harboring separatist’s dreams.

Above all, I learned that he belonged to a near-extinct breed, those few men and women in the entire history of humanity who were willing to give up everything just to be able to live truthfully. In Xiaobo’s case, he had so much to lose — a brilliant academic career, his first marriage, contact with his only son, friendships and reputation, and freedom for himself and his loved ones. And yet, in an interview he gave shortly before his arrest in 2008, he told the reporter that he happily chose the way he lived. “People often asked me how I could endure all that surveillance, jail time, joblessness, isolation…I tell them this is my chosen life. We all have to pay a certain price for our chosen lives. My old friends who went into business, university teaching, even governmental positions had to give up a lot as well – they had to stay alert and careful of what they say and do. I can live according to my own conscience, devoid of lies. Being under constant watch and going to jail is simply a part of my job as a dissident. I feel free inside.”     

On July 13th, Liu Xiaobo died of liver cancer. He died a political prisoner and was kept out of sight by authorities until the very end. That evening, I again called my father in Shanghai. He was not aware of the death. After listening to my rumblings about who the man was and how we owed him, my father looked stricken with worry. “Don’t get yourself worked up about this, my child,” he said, “You know how it is in China. There’s nothing you could do, or we could do. Give it time. Be patient and focus on your own life.” My already heavy heart broke. These words came from a man whose own father died a political prisoner during the Cultural Revolution, who saw his own work trampled by endless censorship, who had taught me for thirty years that freedom of speech and democracy are the most important human rights to strive for. I heard defeat and utter resignation in my father’s voice.   

The next day, I found out that there was no mention of Xiaobo’s death in the Chinese media. The Chinese Internet had been scrubbed clean of any grassroots attempt to memorialize him. The word “candle” was banned from social media postings, and the candle emojis taken down from apps and blogs. His name, initials, even the names of foreign men whom Xiaobo was once compared to but had otherwise no relations were, banned from search results. I had a pounding headache. In my sorry state, I called a Chinese friend and invited him to attend a vigil for Liu Xiaobo that night. The conversation didn’t go well. I heard him asking me why it mattered so much to me, to us. I lost it. Like an idiot, I yelled on the phone that it mattered because we, the younger generation of Chinese, no longer care about the truth of our history or the future of our country — we were dazzled by the materialism and commercial society China has come to represent and we were acquiescent on the censorship and oppression. It mattered because a Chinese person is “unpatriotic” and a “traitor” as soon as he has a different opinion from one political party, and somewhere along the line we’ve completely lost the wisdom and spirits of our May Fourth thinkers. It mattered because we’ve been living in fear for too long. That fear follows us wherever we go — even a passport or nationality change will not stop it from inflicting on our minds and forcing us to toe the line. That fear hisses in our ears, “my dear, not even death would do us apart, as I’ll make sure you pass on our bond to your offspring.” “Is this the way of living a dignified life?” I yelled again. My friend mumbled a few words of sympathy and hung up. Wise guy.

That evening, I stood with a few dozen mourners – the vast majority from my parents’ generation — at a candlelit vigil for Liu Xiaobo. As dawn descended on us, we paid tribute to Xiaobo in front of a banner depicting the now iconic “empty chair”. Tears obscured our vision, but I had a precious moment of clarity. Merely a month ago, I had stood at a breathtakingly futuristic intersection in downtown Shanghai, wondering aloud why I had to live a self-exiling life in a foreign land. “To tell stories of unsung heroes like Liu Xiaobo,” I heard a firm voice in my head. “To keep records of truth so that we will never forget.”  


Here’s a list of further readings about the life and legacy of Liu Xiaobo:

Hersh Wolch, Canada's Greatest Trial Lawyer, Dies

Hersh Wolch died earlier this week in Calgary. He was 77.

While it’s likely that you have never heard of Wolch, you may be familiar with the likes of David Milgaard, Steven Truscott, or the number of  other individuals that Wolch worked to release from prison after their wrongful convictions.  

Wolch was a lawyer — a criminal defence lawyer who built a niche around representing the wrongfully convicted. Widely considered Canada’s best trial lawyer, Wolch was revered among lawyers for his skill, tenacity, and approachability.

Wolch is one of the only lawyers to have ever cross-examined witnesses before the Supreme Court of Canada (this is exceedingly rare, since it is an appeal court and does not hear evidence or testimony directly).  And, not only did Wolch cross-examine witnesses before the Supreme Court of Canada, he gave one of the greatest cross-examinations ever recorded in Canada.

Wolch was hired by Milgaard to help overturn his wrongful conviction for a rape and murder he did not commit. At the time, Milgaard had served 23 years in prison, and Wolch elected to cross-examine Larry Fisher, another suspect in the case. Wolch put on a masterful show, incrementally establishing that Milgaard could not have been the person responsible and that Fisher was in fact the only person capable of committing the crime. A transcript of the cross-examination can be found here (starts at page 2440, with the second portion of the transcript here), and regardless if you have legal training or not, it’s a remarkable read. The cross-examination led to Milgaard’s release, and a few years later, Fisher would be convicted for the same crimes due to DNA evidence linking him to the crime scene.

I met Wolch once. He had been awarded a public interest law award from a bar association for his work for the wrongfully accused and the expansion of Charter rights (although Wolch was one of the stars of the night, he looked out of place, even bored; you got a sense that these sorts of events didn’t  do much for Wolch). At the end, I approached him to discuss his career and seek advice, and Wolch was more than happy to speak. I asked him about his greatest achievement as a lawyer, and he paused for a bit, and answered that a few months back, he went to see a movie with Milgaard. Sitting in a movie theatre to watch a film with a man that had been wrongfully imprisoned for over two decades was a surreal experience for Wolch, and brought home why he did this work: to give the likes of Milgaard, Truscott, and others the freedoms we take for granted.

Baby Driver and the Revolution of the Movie Musical

By Josh Fanaeian
There has been a recent revolution in the use of music in film and television over the past few years, and it’s been met by almost universal appreciation. Rather than looking for the newest, shiniest artist or upcoming hit, today’s directors and music supervisors have been looking far and deep into the past to bring a fresh supplement to underscore on-screen performances. Earlier this year, for example, this approach  was used for the second season of  Aziz Ansari’s Netflix hit Master of None, which featured deep cuts of classic Italian pop and disco. Director James Gunn has now done it twice in both of his Guardians of the Galaxy films, using classic rock, pop, and soul. Both soundtracks have been fantastic.

The newest, and arguably the most novel, example of this groundswell comes in the form of Baby Driver, the new film directed by Edgar Wright, (who previously directed cult hits like Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World).

Before delving into the film and its intricate connection with music, it’s worth discussing the the inception of this film, which is fascinating in it’s own right. In a recent Pitchfork profile, Wright revealed that one of the main reasons he signed on to direct (but also infamously later left) Marvel’s Ant-Man was to gain support to bring Baby Driver’s script to life — a pet project he had sat on for years. In fact, the movie was inspired by the song “Bellbottoms” by Jon Spencer Blue’s Explosions, which Wright first heard back in 1995:

“It was as close to synesthesia as I’ll probably ever come: ‘When I listen to this song, I think of a car chase—what is the movie that goes with this vision?’”

Without giving too much away, a number of critics consider Baby Driver a “musical without being a musical,” akin to Saturday Night Fever or Footloose. However, unlike previous “no-singing musicals” (the hilarious lip syncing doesn’t count), the dancing, the pace of the dialogue, the action sequences, and even the beat of gunfire, are all in sync with the ever-present soundtrack. Indeed, the music is so present that the rare moments without it become striking.

Each track has a back-story or particular reason why it is placed in a scene. In some instances, the scene was built around the song. The characters and story build off the music, and vice versa. The soundtrack itself is a whopping twenty-seven songs, and there are probably another twenty played at least briefly in the film. On top of musical immersion, in true Edgar Wright style, there is an array of easter eggs, cameos, references, and homages to many of the tracks played throughout the story. It is really no surprise so many movie-goers are seeing it again and again, and listening to the soundtrack on repeat.

In Canada, Politics Trumps Science

Back in 2015, we published a series of articles detailing the Harper government’s quiet but sustained efforts to muzzle Canadian scientists, and to limit the access of citizens and public servants to scientific information or research about our country, and specifically, our environment. (See those articles here, here, and here).

“As a country, we are facing numerous important problems that require scientific study: climate change, significant loss in biodiversity, water shortage, water pollution, acid rain, and many more,” wrote the renowned biologist David Schindler. “At the same time, the Harper Government has eroded protections designed to address these problems, and has actively impeded scientific research and education which can help Canadians understand changes to our environment and make informed decisions about future development. Without scientific underpinning, the prospect of foresighted policies to protect the environment that our grandchildren will depend on is very bleak.”

Based on my experience during the 2015 federal election, I’m willing to wager that one of the key reasons for Harper’s defeat was the public outrage at the Conservative Party’s disdain for science and their naked attempt to obfuscate environmental risks to curry favor with the oil and gas industry.

The Liberals have since unmuzzled scientists, and have fortified their right to speak publicly. But does that mean that the government now listens to them, or uses their research to determine policy? According to a new article by Schindler in Alberta Views magazine — nope. Since the 1980s, he argues, science-based policy has been ignored or pushed aside by government bureaucrats, wonkish technocrats, and pro-industry consultants in favor of policy that facilitates development. Though good scientific research is abundant and publicly accessible, both the Trudeau Liberals and provincial governments have take steps to avoid it.

As an example, Schindler points to Alberta, where, during the rapid expansion of the oilsands industry, the monitoring of rivers and other ecosystems was done primarily by industry consultants and Alberta Environment. “The province claimed industry activity was having an undetectable effect on the environment; it allowed further expansion. Independent studies, however, disputed the findings of industry’s monitoring,” Schindler writes. “Several high-profile reviews eventually confirmed that provincial agencies had performed shoddy science and oversight in the oil sands region. These studies recommended that monitoring be turned over to an independent agency to ‘restore public trust.’”

Schindler also suggests that the Liberals are using shoddy science to justify the federal greenhouse gas emission strategy — a strategy that he hopes will be subject to better scientific scrutiny.

“Canadians must remain vigilant: Our environmental regulations are still those modified by the Harper government. The civil service too is unchanged: Top jobs are still occupied by career policy wonks with little understanding of science. And while more scientists may now speak about their research, they remain forbidden from public discussion of policy options.”

The Music Section

The Polaris Prize has released its Short List, and while there are a few major snubs (Mac DeMarco, Drake, The Weeknd), it's a good if mostly predictable list (check it out here). But let's forget about that for now, because there's a tonne of new music slated to be released over the next couple of months, and artists are dropping singles left and right.

The two albums I'm most excited for, at this point, are A Deeper Understanding by The War On Drugs, and Flower Boy by Tyler, The Creator. The former is no surprise — The War On Drugs are arguably the most stellar indie band making music right now, and their newest single, "Strangest Thing" is superb.

The latter comes as a bit of surprise. Tyler, The Creator is the opposite of stellar, having released an inconsistent string of (often controversial) releases over the past several years. And yet he's released an extremely solid set of collaborative singles this month (with A$AP Rocky, with Frank Ocean), each of which harken back to the good old days of Odd Future. 

Check out a couple of tracks below:
Tyler, The Creator - Who Dat Boy

The Week's Links

RIP Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman (and the first Iranian) to win the Fields Medal, math’s highest honor. She was just 40 years old. “The quadrennial Fields Medal, which Mirzakhani won in 2014, is the most prestigious award in mathematics, often equated in stature with the Nobel Prize. Mirzakhani specialized in theoretical mathematics that read like a foreign language by those outside of mathematics: moduli spaces, Teichmüller theory, hyperbolic geometry, Ergodic theory and symplectic geometry.”

A hilarious (and important) polemic against ugly corporate jargon by Lucy Kellaway: “The business world is divided into two kinds of people. There are those who talk tosh (the majority) and those who do not. The defining characteristic of dedicated tosh-talkers like Mr Schultz is they simply do not see a problem with it.”

Black Market Babies. Religious matching and lax anti-trafficking laws led to a booming underground market for infants in mid-century Montreal. Adam Elliott Segal, the son of one such adoptee, investigates for Maisonneuve.

The party's over, oilsands. Time to call it a day, Trudeau, writes Ross Belot in iPolitics: “Make no mistake: The industry is in rapid retreat from future oilsands investment. There hasn’t been a major project sanctioned since 2014. Sure, there’s been bold talk of improving technology to drive new oilsands projects. But here’s where I go back to the words of Suncor CEO Steve Williams from just a few months ago: ‘Mining investments are coming to an end, not just for Suncor but for the industry, I believe, for a considerable period, probably in excess of 10 years … I want to be equally clear: we have no plans to be going ahead with major capital investment in either mining or in situ in the foreseeable future.’”

Outside features an overview of the Airbnb debate as it plays out in mountain resort towns like Crested Butte, Colorado. Hard choices all around for locals (but none for tourists).

The artist behind The Heidelberg Project in Detroit dissembles his whimsical and decades old public art project in a New York Times 360 Video.

Hip-hop and R&B are officially the U.S.’s dominant music genres
, according to the newest Nielsen Music Report.

Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals. This one caused quite a stir on social media. “While we busy ourselves greening our personal lives, fossil fuel corporations are rendering these efforts irrelevant. The breakdown of carbon emissions since 1988? A hundred companies alone are responsible for an astonishing 71 percent. You tinker with those pens or that panel; they go on torching the planet.”

From Kendrick Lamar to Flying Lotus to Kamasi Washington, Zach Graham explores the impact of John Coltrane’s epic free jazz record Interstellar Space on some of today’s most cutting edge music.
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