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The imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo recalls a bleak tradition of China’s repression

Posted by Author on December 26, 2009

The Times, UK, Dec. 26, 2009-

Communist China was born amid trumped-up charges against supposed enemies of the State. The eleven-year prison sentence imposed yesterday on Liu Xiaobo, a literary scholar and the country’s most prominent dissident, demonstrates a bleak continuity in the regime’s practices. It was a peculiarly cynical touch that the judgment was issued on Christmas Day.

Liu was seized from his home a year ago. One of his compatriots — a blogger, in a country that seeks to control access to the internet — pointedly referred to him yesterday as the Chinese Mandela. The comparison is not far-fetched, except that in his trial for high treason in 1963, Nelson Mandela at least had the opportunity to make a five-hour speech.

Liu was given no opportunity to respond to his sentence, which was a foregone conclusion. His “crimes” consist of calls for political reform. He published half a dozen online articles, including one for the BBC, and organised a petition for a reform entitled Charter 08. His model was the Charter 77 movement in Czechoslovakia, which proved to be a rallying point, that aided the triumph of liberty. Several hundred Chinese intellectuals have signed Liu’s petition. As happened in Czechoslovakia, a repressive communist regime uses a catch-all law against subversion in order to stifle dissent.

Western diplomacy faces a conundrum. China has emerged as a 21st-century economic giant, yet its embrace of the global market has gone unaccompanied by political reform. There is a long tradition in Western political thought, from Charles James Fox through the Victorian free- traders John Bright and Richard Cobden, that sees commerce as the route to comity. Yet China is a counter to the assumption that repressive regimes are inevitably softened by greater prosperity, and a burgeoning middle class.

As the advanced industrial democracies suffer the consequences of a huge financial crisis, China’s relative influence in the global economy has increased. It is as if, having attained a crucial status in international economic relations, China’s regime sees its new prosperity as a means of asserting its political model. Western governments must deal with that fact.

Western standards of living are increasingly tied to China. America’s wide current account deficit is, in effect, being supported by the huge stock of savings that China has built up and invested in dollar-denominated financial instruments over the past decade. China matters to the West. Yet it appears, from the draconian treatment meted out to Liu, that it is futile to expect economic development on its own to support trends towards Western liberal political rights within China.

There lies the diplomatic importance of the Liu case. A brave man has been treated in the worst traditions of an autocratic regime. As Liu takes as his model the campaigns for human rights in the Eastern bloc, then Western governments should follow him. The Helsinki final agreement, signed by the US and the Soviet Union in 1975, established human rights as an integral concern of the superpower relationship and gave heart to dissident movements. As Liu begins his incarceration, the West should seek a new Helsinki with an emerging superpower. Trade is not enough.

The Times

One Response to “The imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo recalls a bleak tradition of China’s repression”

  1. thank you for this post, and all the work you must put into it so that we can read it. I am very happy that I fownd your blog! ;)

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