China and Liu Xiaobo: the weakness of strength

The award of the Nobel peace prize to Chinese rights activist Liu Xiaobo is a landmark moment. In January 2010, Kerry Brown assessed Liu's significance - and Temtsel Hao anticipated this moment (archive)

The Chinese writer and prominent legal activist Liu Xiaobo was subject to the travesty of a brief court process on 23 December 2009 and given a brutal sentence of eleven years’ imprisonment two days later. The decision ended a year of uncertainty surrounding the dissident, who in December 2008 had publicised the call for civic rights and freedoms known as Charter 08; his trial came six months after he was placed under “house arrest” (at a detention centre which in fact was not his normal place of residence), itself six months after he was arrested and placed formally under investigation over his role in the charter.

The speed of China’s physical transformation - ever-taller buildings, ultra-modern cities, high-speed trains, grand civic buildings - can conceal from view the deep immobility in other areas. In 1994, when I was based in the northern city of Hohhot in inner Mongolia, it was only through acquiring a copy of the Guardian’s weekly overseas edition that I learned of the fate of the most renowned dissident of that era, Wei Jingsheng. He had already spent fourteen years inside for his pioneering role in the “democracy wall” movement of 1978-79, when he famously called for the government to embark on a “fifth modernisation” to match the four it had committed itself to: namely, democracy.

Soon after being released in 1993, Wei’s refusal to remain quiet and irritation of the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping led him to be sent back for trial. In a hasty one-day hearing in Beijing on a cold and subdued January day, he was condemned to another fourteen years. I remember looking at the newspaper photo of the police deployed in the areas around the courtroom, keeping foreign reporters as far away as possible. Wei had not been properly seen or heard from for a long time. I felt greatly impressed by the courage he must have had to stand against this sort of isolating onslaught.

Wei was released in 1997, after constant pressure on Beijing from the United States, the European Union and others (see Wei Jingsheng, "China's political tunnel" , 22 January 2009). Years later, I met him in London where he was giving a speech at an Amnesty International event. His sprightly, sharp humour was undiminished by almost two decades in prison. I told him of an incident in December 1999 when as a foreign-official in London I had been given a list of high- level Chinese leaders to whom Christmas cards should be sent on behalf of Britain’s then foreign secretary, the late Robin Cook. I just managed to prevent the despatch of seasonal greetings to Deng Xiaoping, who had died two years previously. Wei Jingsheng was both greatly amused and seized on the point that bureaucratic incompetence was truly universal among states.

Behind the fist

Liu Xiaobo will need the same sort of resilience as Wei Jingsheng’s to survive, and perhaps he too will one day be let free to live in the west. But whatever the future holds in his case, there is about China’s treatment of its most prominent “internal” dissident a vengeful harshness that sends a bleak signal.

Liu’s greatest violation in the government’s eyes was to draft the Charter 08 document that was to be signed by hundreds of Chinese writers and intellectuals (see Perry Link, "Charter 08: a blueprint for China", (25 January 2009). In itself, the charter is little more than a lucid call for greater transparency and openness; but at least a couple of its sentences have evidently irritated the most powerful leaders in China very deeply. Their treatment of Liu is a stark message to its supporters inside and outside China: if you mess with us here, we will annihilate you - so get on and make money like everyone else, while leaving matters of rights, law and democracy well alone.

There is, independently of Liu’s statements or the way he has presented them, a puzzling element about this attitude. Why do the peaceful actions of one individual, who is barely known in the west, provoke this extreme fury? The Chinese government, after all, has become used to acting with brusque confidence in the international arena; its performance at the Copenhagen climate-change summit in December 2009 (which came soon after it had secured an abject statement from Denmark for meeting the Dalai Lama in May), is but one example. It seems extraordinary that a sovereign nation of 1.4 billion people, the world’s largest exporter with over $2 trillion in currency reserves, can demean itself by acting in this way.

China’s inability to ignore Liu Xiaobo, or merely to rebut his statements and leave it at that, leaves it looking weaker than before. For in its response to such cases, the mighty Chinese government begins to look a much frailer thing - less a dynamic, thrusting superpower-in-waiting than a fragile, insecure state (see "China's shadow sector: power in pieces", 17 September 2009).

The day that China feels no need to force its immense hands over the mouth of a single individual’s mouth for fear of him having the strength to speak out will be the day that it really will have risen, and be ready to shake the world. The treatment of Liu Xiaobo argues against that happening any time soon.

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Kerry Brown is an associate fellow on the Asia programme, Chatham House. He is the author of Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century (Anthem Press, 2007), The Rise of the Dragon: Inward and Outward Investment in China in the Reform Period 1978-2007 (Woodhead, 2008) and Friends and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of China (Anthem Press, 2009). His website is here