The award of the Nobel peace prize to Liu Xiaobo reflects the determination of at least part of the international community to maintain a focus on human rights in China and those who seek to uphold them. By the same token, the immense energy that the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is putting into the effort to dissuade representatives from foreign governments attending the award ceremony in Oslo on 10 December 2010 is a reminder of the lengths to which this highly authoritarian regime will go to project its own version of reality.
When the Communist Party elite sees what it defines as its core interests threatened, it is ready to deploy in the international arena methods that give foreigners but a taste of what it imposes on China’s own outspoken citizens.
Liu Xiaobo is now the most prominent of the latter: China’s best known dissident still in jail in the PRC. His case - a citizen with a record of rights-activism from the era of protest at Tiananmen, who was sentenced to eleven years’ imprisonment on 25 December 2009 - raises many questions about what the regime in Beijing thinks about itself, and about its response to any challenge to its monopoly on power.
Yet, in the absence of any answers from leading representatives of this regime (no politburo member has as yet deigned to voice an opinion on Liu’s treatment), the most striking thing about its action here is that it is shot through with fear.
The handling of Liu Xiaobo - his arrest, his jailing, the silencing of his wife, the reaction to his Nobel prize - reveals anything but leaders confident and secure in their position. The very publicity given to Liu’s predicament, which the Nobel award further fuels, at least affords him some level of protection. But there are many individuals serving jail terms in China now about whom far less is known yet who deserve an equivalent measure of attention.
One of these is a man called Hada, a native of Inner Mongolia who in 1995 was sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment. Hada, along with his wife Xinna, was the proprietor of a small bookshop in the centre of the provincial capital, Hohhot. Those who visited it would have seen nothing more than a place to buy Mongolian music, Mongolian-language tapes for prospective learners, and some small imported goods from across the border in the Mongolian People’s Republic. The court deposition, however, alleged that it was the centre of an organisation agitating for a pan-Mongolian state, and secession from the PRC. There may indeed have been some truth in this.
Hada himself was also said to be a separatist who sought Inner Mongolia’s independence, and was agitating for support amongst the 10% of the region’s population who are (like Hada and Xinna) ethnically Mongolian. They had links, it was claimed, to groups in the United States and Germany. Over 230 other suspects were seized in summer 1995, some of them connected to protests in the early 1980s. Many of these were also given heavy sentences.
Hada, the claimed ringleader, was given special attention after his sentencing. He was first incarcerated in Baotou, a large industrial city to the west of Hohhot; then transferred to Chifeng, a city to the north of the autonomous region. He was treated very harshly, as his wife reported in regular bulletins over the years - beatings at the hands of other prisoners, mounting health problems, and disturbing reports of neglect verging on a form of torture.
Hada has served a full sentence, and is finally due for release on 10 December 2010. But his future is far from assured - for in China’s legal environment, the boundaries of a jail can stretch beyond its physical walls. Indeed, the Southern Mongolian Human Rights Information Centre reports that Hada's wife and son were detained on 4-5 December in Hohhot, amid reports that Xinna may be charged in connection with the running of the family's Mongolian studies' bookshop.
The case of Chen Guangcheng, a blind activist freed in September 2010, is further illustration of this. Since returning to his home in Shandong province, Chen has had no contact with the outside world. His home is surrounded by intrusive security, with lights kept on twenty-four hours a day, no visitors allowed in, and no telephone or internet contact with the outside world.
Liu Xiaobo’s wife has been treated to such oppressive management. She has been detained, wholly against China’s own laws, in her home. She has broken no laws nor been convicted of any crime; yet she might just as well be in prison. It can be presumed that this overbearing surveillance awaits Hada too. The arrest of his family is but the latest ominous sign that his freedom of movement will be severely restricted, and his home become the kind of prison that those of Chen Guangcheng and Liu Xiaobo have.
The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are some of the most powerful people in the world. They command an economy that is now the second largest after the US’s. They possess nuclear weapons, and formidable armed forces. They wield immense authority both in the Asia region and, increasingly, across the globe. But they also feel it worth their while to use every single method at their disposal, no matter how crude or demeaning, to crush opponents who - even in the best of times - are both weak and barely noticed among the wider society.
The sheer pettiness that characterises the repression they have authorised on Liu, Hada, and many others is unseemly. But it is also instructive. For the mighty Beijing leadership seems actually to fear - that word again - that one or more of the weak opponents it has consistently tried to destroy will mount a real challenge to its authority; and to act the way it does in order to postpone such a dreadful outcome. The self-defeating aspect of the elite’s course is that it only brings closer that nightmarish prospect.
The People’s Republic of China is one of the most important powers in the world. Its continued emergence poses an unavoidable test not just of political capacity but of moral authority and legitimacy. To pass it, the current leadership needs to begin to temper its strength with justice and mercy. The experience of Hada, Chen Guangcheng, Liu Xiaobo - and many others - shows how far there is to go.