Why Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize Matters

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.