A Chinese Nobel: changing the template?
By John J. Metzler
UNITED NATIONS ― Jailed dissident and human rights campaigner Liu Xiaobo has won the Nobel Peace Prize despite the seething fury of Beijing’s ruling Marxist mandarins.
The somewhat surprising announcement, awarding the 54-year-old academic who has called for multiparty democracy and respect for human rights in China, was as welcome as it was necessary.
Why? The award changes the global template concerning China, however briefly. The Trade Template dominates discussions on China, with disproportionate focus on the mainland’s economic reforms and ensuing meteoric economic growth.
Over the past 15 years, reams of impressive gee-whiz statistics and the shimmering temptations of commercially conquering the “China market” have pushed human rights and the lack of political freedoms to the political periphery.
The other template ― Tiananmen, Tibet and Taiwan has thus been largely overshadowed by the economic rise of the Chinese dragon.
The nervousness of Western governments to offend the “rising superpower,” the dream of businessmen to “do a deal” in China, and the stoic acquiescence of most of East Asia to an impending new order has set the agenda.
Thus the Tiananmen tragedy has been largely forgotten, Tibet has a vocal but small lobby, and democratic Taiwan is being drowned out by the roar of the dragon.
Though talk of human rights issues has not totally been silenced, neither has it had gained a prominent hearing in recent years.
Instead China’s successful hosting of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the Shanghai Expo this year are the contemporary images of a “changed China,” and glossy vistas of China’s “peaceful rise.”
Not long ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lectured Vietnam’s communists on its horrible human rights situation but shortly thereafter failed to raise the very same issues in Beijing.
That’s part of the same selective chastisement which characterizes the Obama administration’s tact toward human rights globally whether the oppressors rule in Beijing, Myanmar (Burma), or Sudan.
As the Wall Street Journal opined editorially, “In the last 18 months, Washington has capitulated to China on the issue of human rights in a way never seen,” since the U.S. opened diplomatic ties with the PRC during the Carter administration in 1979.
Now Liu’s prize forces the human rights debate to the fore, as did a well-timed Nobel for Poland’s trade union activist Lech Walesa in 1983, the exiled Tibetan Dalai Lama in 1989, or Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi in 2001.
The Nobel committee citation described Prof. Liu as “the foremost symbol of this wide-ranging struggle for human rights in China.”
Indeed a key organizer of the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square, he was already intimately connected to the already graying but bloodied Tiananmen generation.
More importantly Liu was a key player in framing and signing the Charter 08, a human rights manifesto which calls on the Beijing government to allow multiparty democracy in China.
Prof. Liu was convicted and sentenced to 11 years in prison for supporting Charter 08. This political manifesto among China’s intellectuals evokes the then-seemingly hopeless attempts of Czech dissidents led by Vaclav Havel in Charter 77, to have open debate and democracy in a stratified political system.
In fact the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) comprises less than five percent of the entire population, they are an unelected minority ruling a majority.
Still China’s political dictatorship offers its citizen-comrades the trade-off of a decent lifestyle and has thus defused many political aspirations.
What’s not apparent is an internal tug of war inside the CCP whether to tighten the screws politically or to appear conciliatory after Prof. Liu’s Nobel Prize caused a “loss of face” for the PRC rulers.
But as the Nobel committee stated, “China is in breach of several international agreements to which it is a signatory, as well as of its own provisions concerning political rights.
Article 35 of China's constitution lays down that “Citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” In practice, these freedoms have proved to be distinctly curtailed for China's citizens.”
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called Liu’s award “a recognition of the growing international consensus for improving human rights practices and culture around the world.”
President Barack Obama stated, “We call on the Chinese government to release Mr. Liu as soon as possible.” Well, we shall see about that.
The Beijing government, condemned the decision and called Prof. Liu a “criminal.” And with its characteristic bluster the PRC rulers made the usual bullying toward the Norwegian government, blocked foreign TV and Internet stories on the topic, and acted with the same self-righteous arrogance it displays so well.
What the People’s Republic rulers still don’t control is the simple question why the people of mainland China, despite growing economic prosperity, can’t have a say in their own political affairs.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of “Trans-Atlantic Divide; The USA/Euroland Rift?” (University Press, 2010). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.