Sounds of spring and resistance for China's dissidents


Violinist Lynn Chang plays a tribute to imprisoned Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo in Oslo in 2010.

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts – The Chinese folk melody, ‘Jasmine Flower,’ hung in the air with all the sweetness and sense of longing of springtime.

It was played as a solo by the virtuoso violinist Lynn Chang in honor of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo and other prisoners of conscience in China, and was part of a beautiful benefit for Amnesty International USA Sunday night.

As Chang himself described the purpose of his playing on this night in Massachusetts, and as he performed in Oslo for imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, he is “trying to fill in with music where words have left off.”

The crowd at Pickman Concert Hall at the Longy School of Music was mesmerized by the performance, but it seems the Obama administration – and the Bush and Clinton administrations before them – have all been fairly tone deaf on human rights in China.

Nothing underscores this fact of recent American history more than the clumsy and discordant steps taken last week in the case of Chen Guangchen, the blind legal advocate and human rights activist who made a daring escape from house arrest and found his way to American diplomatic protection only to be released back into the hands of the Chinese government.

His fate remains uncertain, but the naiveté, or perhaps stupidity, of the American government seems to be the big take away from the events of last week in China.

Liu Xiaobo, the prominent Chinese scholar and 2010 recipient of the Nobel, was sentenced in 2009, after a two-hour court hearing, to 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”

In Oslo, he was represented on stage by an empty chair, as have been five previous laureates who were prisoners of conscience.

The 18th century Chinese folk song, 'Jasmine Flower,' has come to be associated with resistance to oppression, and for a while last year there was a stirring of resistance and jasmine flowers suddenly became the rage and the song became a popular ring tone for Chinese youth. That is, until provincial members of the Chinese Communist Party started banning any expression of the song and outlawed its use on cell phones.

But Sunday night, for a few moments, the peaceful melody of 'Jasmine Flower' was fragrant in the air and filled the concert hall with hope that perhaps Washington will develop a better ear for the music of resistance that is playing across China.