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Why Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize Matters

For many Americans, the initial reaction to this year’s Nobel Peace Prize announcement was probably something like “Liu who?” — a reaction ironically shared by many in mainland China where jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo’s name has not been widely known either, thanks to government censorship and repression. In fact, the Nobel Committee’s absurd choice last year of Barack Obama notwithstanding, Liu is a deserving winner — an immensely courageous and thoughtful figure who deserved to be a household name long before he became one. But is Liu’s Nobel important? Speaking as an American expatriate writer in Asia for almost 15 years, I believe it is; and it’s worthwhile to explain why.

First, Liu’s award matters because it will inevitably draw renewed attention, and give new energy, to the “new” democratic reform movement inside China, a movement which developed subsequently to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. In particular, the award will create enormous curiosity, both inside and outside China, about “Charter 08,” the democracy manifesto that Liu, with other dissidents, coauthored in 2008.

Moreover, as important as it is for Westerners to know about Liu and the other democrats, if only because our vast trade with China directly affects Western interests, it is far more important for Chinese — especially the wealthy, urban Chinese who can actually influence events — to know about him and his ideas. This is happening at this very moment. All over China, Liu’s writings are being posted, removed by government censors, reposted, and removed again. His name is being whispered everywhere, from Beijing in the north, to Guangzhou in the south, to Tibet in the west.

Thanks to the Internet, this Pandora’s box cannot be closed. Liu himself may stay in jail, or be sent into exile, but the ideas he has advocated cannot be suppressed. China’s dictators are learning, as a thousand different autocracies have learned before them, that ideas cannot be killed. And Liu’s core idea — that Chinese people are just as good as other human beings and therefore must have the same rights — has an appeal that is more powerful than the mightiest army, more determined than the most ruthless secret police.

In addition, Liu’s Nobel is important because it shows how, invisible to the outside world, the debate inside China has moved on. It is well known that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) responded to Tiananmen by allowing greater economic freedom while cracking down on political dissent. But few people realize that the democratic opposition, which still exists despite the crackdown, responded to this by hardening its stance against the CCP: the democrats now no longer believe that the CCP can reform internally, or that some kind of compromise, such as expanding the scope of China’s “village elections,” is possible. Instead, as Charter 08 shows, they now believe that nothing less than full multiparty democracy is acceptable.

Actually, there are two views about the CCP’s post-1989 delay of political reform. The first view is that Beijing has invented a new political paradigm — “Asian authoritarianism,” “market Leninism,” or whatever one chooses to call it — which is successfully delivering stability and economic growth, with complaining limited to a few misfits. This view is promulgated by the CCP (though with more self-flattering labels, e.g., “socialism with Chinese characteristics”) and accepted by a dismayingly high number of Western commentators (e.g., Tom Friedman).

There is an alternative view, however, which holds that by delaying political reform too long, the CCP has made itself irrelevant to China’s political future, and would be quickly swept aside by other political forces if truly free elections were ever held, much as the dwindling, marginalized Communist Party in Russia has been. The surprising persistence of democratic ideals in China, as symbolized by Liu’s Nobel, argues that this latter view may turn out to be the correct one.

It may seem unlikely now that the CCP could fade away as the Russian party has, but there is evidence that the CCP itself fears this eventuality. Since 1989, CCP officials have made discreet inquiries with socialist parties in European ex-Communist states to learn how they have maintained their political viability in a democratic environment. And just a few days ago, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao — the #2 figure in the CCP power structure — gave a CNN interview where, in an uncharacteristically conciliatory, almost wheedling tone, he claimed to support political reform. This is particularly significant because Wen is literally the only member of the regime’s top leadership who is even slightly popular with the Chinese public.

In addition, the Nobel is noteworthy because it brilliantly exploited one of the only effective weapons that the outside world has against the militarily invulnerable CCP: namely, humiliation. Most Westerners do not appreciate how potent the loss of “face,” or “mianzi,” is for Chinese and other East Asians. People in this part of the world are highly sensitive to direct criticism because, culturally, they almost never have to face it.

Consequently, their desire to avoid any form of shame or censure is very strong. Seen as a “loss of face,” it is hard to exaggerate how stunning a setback Liu’s Nobel is for the CCP regime. Until just days ago, Beijing was certain that it had intimidated or jailed its domestic opponents, cowed or co-opted foreign governments with the lure of economic ties, and charmed media and intellectual figures around the world with the Olympics in 2008 and the Shanghai Expo this year. Instead,the regime finds itself being compared to Nazi Germany, which was the only other government to have the Peace Prize awarded to a political prisoner while in custody (that winner was pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who won in 1935 for exposing efforts to rebuild the German Air Force in violation of the Versailles Treaty).

Also, like other Communist regimes, the CCP has used its control of education to systematically indoctrinate its citizens, almost from birth, that all criticism of the CCP (the unelected ruling party) is tantamount to criticism of China (the country/culture/civilization). But this is a lie, and always has been. As many Chinese are beginning to realize, foreign politicians and journalists who criticize the CCP’s mistakes — including, implicitly, the Nobel Committee — are actually on the same side as ordinary Chinese people who suffer directly from those mistakes.

One of the regime’s favorite tricks is to frame all criticism in the context of “China vs. foreigners.” But the biggest threat China’s people face, in reality, is the CCP, which has murdered at least 50 million Chinese since taking power, and continues to oppress them in countless ways, including flagrant corruption, land seizures, heinous pollution, censorship of the press and the Internet, and poisoned milk and pet food. Thus, a more accurate framing would be “Unelected CCP regime vs. 1.2 billion Chinese people and the rest of the world.”

The consolidation of this potential alliance is what the CCP fears the most, and this explains its hysterical, panicky response to the Nobel announcement (threatening to “recall our ambassador to Norway,”  is possibly the most laughable action by a national government since “Baghdad Bob” threatened to “throw out the invaders” even as U.S. tanks rolled through the Baghdad airport). Needless to say, any government that is frightened of Norway is actually advertising its own weakness.

Finally, Liu’s Nobel is significant because of Charter 08 itself. The Charter, a powerful and even moving document, deserves to be much more widely read, both inside and outside China, and I encourage readers to do so (it’s not long). Sources of inspiration for the Charter include the U.S. Constitution, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, the Universal Human Rights Declaration of the United Nations, and (most embarrassingly for Beijing) the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China — a lovely document which is routinely ignored by CCP leaders whenever it suits their short-term political interest.

It is fair to say that wider awareness of Charter 08 within China will, just by itself, seriously threaten CCP rule in the long term, even if there are no visible changes in the short term. The Charter’s preamble (translated by Human Rights Watch in China) contains a ringing endorsement of universal human rights:

Having experienced a prolonged period of human rights disasters and challenging and tortuous struggles, the awakening Chinese citizens are becoming increasingly aware that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values shared by all humankind, and that democracy, republicanism, and constitutional government make up the basic institutional framework of modern politics. A “modernization” bereft of these universal values and this basic political framework is a disastrous process that deprives people of their rights, rots away their humanity, and destroys their dignity. Where is China headed in the 21st century? Will it continue with this “modernization” under authoritarian rule, or will it endorse universal values, join the mainstream civilization, and build a democratic form of government? This is an unavoidable decision.

Considering that Charter 08 verges on being a revolutionary manifesto, it is remarkable that its original authors, including Liu, signed the document with their real names, and were joined in doing so by hundreds of supporters, including many well-known dissidents. Even more remarkably, as the document has circulated around China since December 2008, many thousands of Chinese people, from all walks of life, have added their signatures. Since only a miniscule fraction of China’s population could have seen the Charter before Liu’s Nobel award, this certainly shows that there is genuine support for democracy in China.

Moreover, the courageous stories of those who have signed the document despite the huge risks — which include professional setbacks, social ostracism, official harassment, and the very real threat of prison — have circulated on the Internet, and make gripping reading. One example was the blogger Tang “Persian” Xiaozhao, a young woman from Chongqing. Tang’s reposting of Charter 08 in late 2008 was quickly deleted by government censors. However, this angered her so much that she not only signed the charter herself as a direct result, but wrote an emotional account of her decision to sign, entitled “I Signed My Name After a Good Cry!” which spread like wildfire on Chinese websites:

We [Chinese supporters of democracy] just want to discuss the future of this country. We want to live a better life than what we have now. … Charter 08 is our future. We can already see it, but we are not able to touch it yet. I am anxiously and whole-heartedly looking forward to the advent of democracy. … Those in power are not serving the people but using the police to deal with scholars that are concerned about the country’s future. … I am not going to fear anything anymore. All the shameful consequences that’ll face those who speak out are no longer intimidating to me.

Ultimately, Liu’s Nobel is important simply because China itself is important. China is so huge, and its wealth and power are increasing so rapidly, that even a modest amount of political reform there will have enormous, and mostly positive, consequences for the rest of the world. A truly democratic China would have incalculable benefits, including a far greater likelihood of decisive action against Iran and North Korea; accelerated political reform in Myanmar, Vietnam, and other authoritarian-leaning Asian states; isolation of troublemaking regimes like Sudan and Zimbabwe; the possibility of a peaceful reunification with Taiwan (resolving one of the U.S.’ most serious security issues); the vast economic benefits that could come from closer U.S.-China political relations (which are primarily held back by the nature of CCP rule); and so on.

It is perfectly conceivable that, in time, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize may be seen as the beginning of the end for China’s Communist “dynasty.” The award has ensnared the government in a fiendishly clever trap, one that is all the more excruciating because it is partly of the regime’s own making. CCP leaders must now decide whether to allow Liu to go to Oslo to accept his award, but whichever decision they make, the regime loses.

If they keep him in custody, the world will regard them as morally equivalent to the Nazis; but if they release him, he will go to Norway and, in his acceptance speech, annihilate what’s left of their political legitimacy with the whole world watching. It gets worse, though: whatever the regime decides to do about Liu as an individual, they face exactly the same dilemma with political repression in general. If they increase it, they will tamp down discontent temporarily, but at the price of an eventual explosion that will probably topple the government completely, as has already happened dozens of times in China’s long history. On the other hand, if they relax their repression, the murmurs of discontent will become an overwhelming roar which will leave them no choice but to enact political reforms or be swept from power. The moment of truth may not be tomorrow, but it will come. Count on it.

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