Repression’s paradox in China

From the authoritarian’s perspective, internal dissidents are easy to deal with – put them in jail, have them disappeared, exiled, or executed. It is not so easy to silence the prestigious Nobel committee, however, let alone the international community. Of course, that is exactly why Professor Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Lester R. Kurtz
17 November 2010

The Chinese government, like all states, is struggling to figure out what to do with its enemies, a core problem for all authoritarians to solve. The Nobel Committee’s awarding of the Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) was clearly taken as an affront to China’s power, elevating the country’s internal dissent to a global level. There is nothing more infuriating to a regime that doesn’t have to answer to its own people than to have friends and outside observers honoring those citizens who speak out. Liu’s crime was to be a key figure in the proclamation of China’s Charter 08 (2008), a call for democratization modeled after Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, the prelude to the Velvet Revolution that brought down that country’s communist government in 1989.

From the authoritarian’s perspective, internal dissidents are easier to deal with – put them in jail, have them disappeared, exiled, or executed. It is not so easy to silence the prestigious Nobel committee, however, let alone the vague collective referred to as ‘the international community.’ Of course, that is exactly why Professor Liu was awarded the prize; his message was amplified in a way that could not be dismissed back home. In the global village disputes cannot be stopped at national boundaries. Efforts by states to keep dissent cloistered at home almost always fail, and smart resisters court the global press and key transnational allies.

Human Rights Watch’s Minky Worden notes that China’s recent policy for dealing with dissent involves “killing a chicken to scare the monkeys,” in other words, disseminating terror and therefore gaining submission by making an example of someone harshly punished. The sacrificial victim in this case is human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, formerly Beijing Normal University professor of literature, who was jailed in 1989 after supporting the Tiananmen Square students in their protest. In 2008 he joined more than 2,000 Chinese citizens in signing a charter calling for an end to one-party rule and the protection of human rights and democracy in China. He is one of several singled out as an example that dissent is not tolerated, thrown into prison to deter others from similar criminal dissent.

The repression of dissidence, however, is always risky and more often than not backfires, fueling more opposition and frequently leading to delegitimation of a regime and even defections from its institutions of power – that is the fundamental paradox of repression (Smithey and Kurtz 1995). The People’s Republic of China has had pretty good luck with repression, however, more so than most regimes, having successfully crushed a nascent opposition movement in the iconic Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 (Kurtz forthcoming; Nathan 2001) even as similar resistance actions fueled uprisings or broad-based movements elsewhere in the world.

The negative fallout from that apparent success continues to soil China’s image, however (see, e.g., Hathaway 2003), and influence geopolitics just as it did in 1989. Following the Tiananmen attack on unarmed student protesters, a tsunami of resistance suddenly arose within the Soviet bloc, inspiring protesters and intimidating an embarrassed Mikhail Gorbachev. The Soviet president had been left almost single-handedly flying the communist banner while trying to reinforce legitimacy by championing democratic and economic reforms far beyond anything the Tiananmen students had demanded of their government.

Walls came tumbling down in 1989 – not the Great Wall of China, of course, but the Berlin Wall and other less physical structures of authoritarian control. When East German Chancellor Erich Honecker called for a Tiananmen solution to German dissidence in the fall of 1989, his own security chief rebuffed him. Gorbachev’s foreign minister literally announced that “the Sinatra Doctrine” (“I did it my way”) would be Moscow’s response to the wave of unrest across Eastern Europe in the wake of Tiananmen Square. There would be no Soviet troops backing a crackdown on Soviet bloc insurgents.

From 1989 until today, the line of descent in regimes’ response to dissent makes many in the proverbial international community distrust the Chinese government and look for heroes of discontent. The Norwegian Nobel Committee had been looking for the right Chinese activist to whom to award the prize and, according to committee member Geir Lundestad, “the Chinese government solved the problem for us. On 25 December 2009, they sentenced him to 11 years in prison. And automatically, he became not only one, or perhaps the leading representative of human rights but he also became a universal symbol of human rights." The government’s repression made Professor Liu an international hero; rather than silence him, it magnified his impact.

Sitting in her Nanjing hotel room the night the Nobel committee made its announcement, the dean of Cheung Kong School of Journalism and Communication at Shantou University’s Ying Chan followed the overwhelming unofficial response in China on her Blackberry and laptop. “In totalitarian states in the past,” she notes, “meetings among dissidents happened under a veil of secrecy. But here I was following the actions of these free-thinking strangers in real time without ever setting foot outside. In the age of the microblog, every mobile handset and computer is a news broadcast station, a node in a vast information network” (Chan 2010).

China’s Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai now threatens reprisals for countries whose representatives will attend the Oslo ceremonies honoring Liu. “Do they want to be part of the political game to challenge China’s judicial system?” Mr Cui asked, according to the Financial Times (Dyer and Ward 2010) “or do they want to develop a true friendly relationship with the Chinese government and people in a responsible manner? … If they make the wrong choice, they have to bear the consequences.” Mr. Cui would unwittingly turn a domestic dissident into a transnational avatar of human rights. It will not be easy, of course, for other nations to ignore Chinese threats, and we already see French, British, and other diplomats awkwardly attempting to negotiate away this problem, inconvenient as it is to their desire to placate the new economic superpower. They cannot afford to lose lucrative trading deals with China, where the government still holds the contract-signing pens, though they cannot also embarrass themselves in front of global and domestic human rights advocates.

The problem with repression is that unavoidably it has an audience – that is the point, after all (chicken-slaughtering to scare the monkeys). But, it is one thing to beat your child in the privacy of your home to enforce parental control, where you may well be able to escape the consequences of this abuse, but quite another to do it in the streets in front of a crowd of witnesses (although studies suggest the home remedy is counterproductive as well). When those watching are allies, trading partners, and potential adversaries, the paradox of repression kicks in: it is likely to inspire increased resistance, recruit sympathizers, and weaken the authority of the oppressors.

By turning its knife toward trading partners who simply attend the Oslo ceremonies, China may find increased international opposition to its chicken-slaughtering at home. A global spotlight on domestic abuses will no doubt embolden other Chinese citizens to speak their minds and could even cultivate defections within China’s inner councils – among Chinese officials who want to be received abroad with genuine instead of feigned courtesy. Dissidents inspire other dissidents, even within the precincts of power.

Months after Tiananmen, Mongolia’s communist rulers were faced with an almost identical scenario: Students and working people had occupied the capital city’s central square, demanding that the next election be freely contested. But the outcome was different in Mongolia: the politburo split and the moderates, instead of the hardliners as in China, prevailed, there was no repression, and such an election was held.  Within a few years, Mongolia was a full, functioning democracy. Repression is not always victorious.

Many observers and practitioners of nonviolent civil resistance, which is now utilized in movements and campaigns for rights in many countries, believe that China is experiencing a gradually intensifying internal civic struggle in which advocates of greater political as well as social and economic rights are becoming more resilient in the face of authoritarian control.  China’s engagement with the world, and its need to foster individual entrepreneurship and local innovation as well as to resolve internal social problems in order to vault itself into global supremacy, is at odds with the suppression of free speech and civic self-organization, which hold public institutions accountable and help correct or mitigate inequalities and injustices that weaken state legitimacy.

Without those brakes on an unresponsive state, government becomes an impediment to achieving the nation’s dreams. Ultimately China’s people are the real repository of those dreams.  What they decide to do, when faced with continued repression of speech and organizing, will no doubt determine what kind of political changes lie in store for China.



2009. “China’s Charter 08: Translated from the Chinese by Perry Link.” New York Review of Books, January 15

Chan, Ying. 2010. “How Hardliners Made Liu Xiaobo a Nobel Front-Runner.” China Media Project, November 12.

Dyer, Geoff, and Andrew Ward. 2010. “Europe defies China’s Nobel threat.FT.com Financial Times, November 5

Gorbachev, Mikhail Sergeevich. 1996. Memoirs. New York: Doubleday.

Kurtz, Lester R. Forthcoming. “Tiananmen Square: The Repercussions of Repressed  Resistance.” Available online at Kurtz, Lester R. 2010. “Chile: Struggle against a military dictator (1985-1988).”

Hathaway, Robert M. 2003. “The Lingering Legacy of Tiananmen.Foreign Affairs.

Nathan, Andrew J. 2001a. The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership’s Decision to Use Force Against their Own People – In Their Own Words. New York: Public Affairs.

Smithey, Lee, and Lester R. Kurtz, “We Have Bare Hands: Nonviolent Social Movements in the Soviet Bloc.” Pp. 96-124 in Nonviolent Social Movements, edited by Stephen Zunes, Lester R. Kurtz, and Sarah Beth Asher. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers, 1999.

Worden, Minky. 2010. China's Nobel Threats Backfire.

Ying, Chan. 2010 “How Hardliners Made Liu Xiaobo a Nobel Front-Runner.China Digital Times

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