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Wednesday, 13 October 2010

It's a set of contrasts, truly. In China, Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Lui Xiaobo languishes in Jinzhou Prison in Liaoning Province, hundreds of kilometres from his wife, Liu Xia, who suffers under house arrest. In Sydney, a $32 million house has been bought by Zeng Wei, the son of Party powerbroker Zeng Qinghong, and his beautiful wife Jiang Mei. They want to demolish the Point Piper house and build a new, $5 million palazzo in its place. Trouble is, the local authorities are denying them their wish.

It reminds me of England's "first Prime Minister" Robert Walpole's literary son, Horace, whose home - called Strawberry Hill - at Twickenham was built grandly and in the modish Gothic style in a series of stages following the purchase in 1748. Immensely rich as a result of his position, Robert passed to his stylish and talented son more than just the style of the Earl of Orford. There were millions of pounds sterling included in the transaction, and Horace took advantage of his father's "success" by creating a home out of all proportion to his diminutive frame.

There is no doubt that England in the 18th century was as corrupt as China is now. Then, politics offered more than just social stature and influence ('influence' involved the ability to favour family and associates with material advantage, either in the form of lucrative jobs or valuable contracts for services to the government). It also involved securing toward one's personal account as much pork as one could.

A similar story is told in the diary of Samuel Pepys, the Navy Board functionary of the preceeding century. Pepys attached himself to a powerful man and rose through a number of profitable posts beginning in the 1660s. A reader of the diary notes with some satisfaction the author's pleasure as each step on the ladder of opportunity is accomplished; many of them are marked by expressions of personal gratification. Pepys would have understood intimately the feelings of frustration that Zeng and Jiang no doubt feel at being denied what they seek from Woolahra Council.

Xiaobo is another sort of character entirely. He's been compared to Nelson Mandela recently. But he more closely resembles someone like John Horne Tooke of the London Corresponding Society who was put in gaol on the charge of treason in 1794. The LCS was a moderate radical organisation established in the wake of the French Revolution, which served as a catalyst for repressive reaction to liberal activities such as those Horne Tooke participated in. Like Xiaobo, Horne Tooke had a literary background. He was acquitted the same year.

Xiaobo will wait in vain for such a short stay behind bars. China is engaged in an ideological war that instead of military action demands a barrage of words. As a man of letters, Xiaobo is doomed to suffer the consequences of speaking too well about a subject the consequences of which the Party understands excellently. In England, in the 1790s, many people were vocal in support of liberalisation. The administration came down hard on dissenters, a tactic it had centuries of practice in. But the faceless men in positions of power are now forgotten, while we remember the radicals and the poets. Coleridge and Wordsworth came into the public sphere in these years and, animated by the Revolution, they would go on to catalyze a generation of men and women who would give the 19th century in England the reforming character it still retains in our collective memory.

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