The vexed question of a Liu Xiaobo Nobel Peace Prize win

Activists holding photos of Liu Xiaobo. Photo by AP

One of the potential recipients of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, due to be announced tomorrow, is Liu Xiaobo, one of China’s most famed dissidents who was last year imprisoned to 11 years for ‘inciting subversion’, having co-authored the pro-democracy document Charter 08.

Modelled on Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, the polemic called for multi-party elections, independent courts and greater freedom of expression in the People’s Republic. It garnered around 7,000 signatures both in China and internationally, and warned of “the possibility of a violent conflict of disastrous proportions” if Beijing failed to reform the one-party authoritarian state.

The possibility of Liu receiving the prize does not sit well with Beijing, with China’s Foreign Ministry calling it “totally wrong.” The head of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, Geir Lundestad, also revealed that China’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Fu Ying, warned him that Liu’s win “would pull the wrong strings in relations between Norway and China, it would be seen as an unfriendly act.”

According to Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu, the fundamental issue is that Liu violated Chinese law. “His acts are completely contrary to the purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize,” she said.

Human rights and pro-democracy activists, however, have marched behind Liu’s cause. Vaclav Havel, the author of Charter 77, wrote in support of Liu’s potential win. Soon after, a Chinese petition signed by 300 scholars, former government officials, lawyers and factory workers followed:

We ask the Nobel Committee to honor Liu Xiaobo’s more than two decades of unflinching and peaceful advocacy for reform, and to make him the first Chinese recipient of that prestigious award. In doing so, the Nobel Committee would signal both to Liu and to the Chinese government that many inside China and around the world stand in solidarity with him, and his unwavering vision of freedom and human rights for the 1. 3 billion people of China.

Liu is no stranger to the world of Chinese dissent. He cut short a visiting scholarship at Columbia University to return to Beijing and participate in the deadly student and workers’ protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, during which he took part in high-profile hunger strikes. Authorities labelled him one of the protest’s ringleaders, and he served an 18 month jail sentence for ‘counter-revolution.’

Throughout the first half of the 1990s, he wrote a number of essays advocating freedom of expression, promoting human rights and criticising the government. However, he was eventually sentenced to three years of manual labour in a re-education camp, being released in 1999.

Nor is he the only Chinese activist to be shortlisted for the prize. Human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng and AIDS activist Hu Jia were both favourites in 2008, having lost out to Finnish former president Martti Ahtisaari. Hu was nominated again in 2009, though lost out to a one Barack Obama.

Were Liu to receive the prize, it would certainly be an embarrassment to Beijing over China’s poor human rights record. It would also undoubtedly boost global attention to Charter 08 and similar writings, which would otherwise remain in circulation among small pockets of Chinese citizens. It may intensify international pressure on China to instigate political reform, changes that Premier Wen Jiabao has himself alluded to over the past few weeks.

But it will take more than a Liu win to kick-start political reform in the PRC. Action at a policy level and legal changes, as discussed by scholar Pan Wei, namely in clarifying the role of civil society, are fundamental. At best, Liu’s potential success would raise awareness of dissent in China. How long-lasting this awareness will be remains to be seen.

But, as with most things in China, matters could also go to the other extreme, and a potential Liu win might backfire. In drawing attention to China’s human rights abuses and raising the profile of those pushing for change, Beijing will not only lose face, but the Communist Party’s entire legitimacy – its monopoly of authority – will be brought into question. For the CCP, this is a non-negotiable. In retaliation, the CCP might toughen its stance on China’s other dissidents.

Such a response occurred, for instance, after Liu’s imprisonment in December 2009. Tan Zuoren, who worked with Ai Weiwei in investigating the deaths of children in schools that collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake, was sentenced to five years for subversion in February. One month later, the outspoken writer Liao Yiwu was banned from leaving the country to attend a German literary festival.

In rallying behind Liu – and I should make it clear I greatly respect him for his bravery – it is important to remember how his followers might well bear the brunt of a tougher government only too willing to lead a crackdown on dissent.

Beijing has made it abundantly clear it does not want Liu Xiaobo to win tomorrow’s prize. If he does, and how China would respond, are anticipated.


Premier Wen: the need for democracy and freedom is “irresistible”

Premier Wen Jiabao at the 2009 World Economic Forum. Image from the World Economic Forum's Flickr photostream. Used under a Creative Commons license.

In a recent CNN interview, Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao pledged that China will carry out political reform alongside economic growth. Speaking to Fareed Zakaria, the premier said,

I believe I and all the Chinese people have such conviction that China will make continuous progress and the people’s wishes and need for democracy and freedom are irresistible. I hope you will be able to gradually see the continuous progress of China.


I believe freedom of speech is indispensable for any country, a country in the course of development and in a country that has become strong.

He added that, in order for China to have a “normal order”, reforms must be “conducted within the range allowed by the constitution and the laws.”

In his first interview with a foreign journalist in two years, the remarks are Wen’s third mention of the need for such change in recent weeks. Earlier this month, the premier called for a loosening of the “excessive political control” of the CPC, and last week told the UN General Assembly that the People’s Republic would “push forward” political restructuring.

There has been increasing pressure for political change in China in recent years, much of which has been amplified by the new media revolution giving ordinary citizens a vehicle to express their views. Episodes of dissent have received much Western attention, such as the case of pro-democracy Charter 08 co-author Liu Xiaobo, who was imprisoned for 11 years last Christmas for “incitement to subvert state power.”

However, analysts have reminded us we should treat Wen’s remarks with caution, not as evidence that political reform is rising higher on the Communist Party’s agenda. Speaking to the Guardian, Columbia University professor Andrew Nation said,

It’s impossible to know exactly what Wen means by ‘political reform’ and ‘universal values’ … he probably envisions a great deal less reform and a great deal less human rights than we would think such words imply.

There is also skepticism over whether Wen, who will step down in 2012, has the time or political prowess to instigate such widespread reform. Activist and scholar Chen Yongmiao also told the Guardian,

It is pie in the sky. He only has two years left in office; even if he really sincerely wants it to happen, he cannot make it. For political reform to take place we need a really powerful leader to face the bureaucracy that’s constituted by so many people, to challenge it and to defeat it. Only Mao or Deng has had that kind of power.

Political reform, both at government and grassroots levels, have long been resisted by the CPC for fear of conceding its monopoly on power, and therefore its legitimacy as an authority. Wen has, however, made far greater mention of the need for political reform than President Hu Jintao. Hu instead prefers to err on the side of orthodoxy, emphasising the need for a ‘harmonious society’, often at the expense of addressing the root of China’s pressing social issues.

China and Brazil: one to watch

Brazil's Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. Image from triplefivedrew's Flickr photostream. Used under a Creative Commons license.

A topic that has been rapidly picking up speed and column space is China’s ever expanding relationship with Brazil. Since China surpassed the US to become the Latin American giant’s largest trading partner in May 2009, more eyes have been following this shift in global power from the developed to developing economies.

However, as this special report from Reuters recently pointed out, this relationship is also notable for for its profound inequality. Luciana Lopez writes,

The sheer size of the Chinese economy means its needs have begun altering Brazil’s, in ways both salutary and worrisome. The lopsided relationship underscores the profound challenges that China’s emergence as an industrial force poses for developing nations.

In the first half of 2010, China’s investment in Brazil topped $20 billion, more than 10 times all of China’s previous investment in the country. On Friday, Chinese state-owned oil company Sinopec inked a deal with Spain’s Repsol to buy 40% of its Brazilian business for $7.1 billion, giving China access to Repsol Brasil’s estimated reserves of 1.2 billion barrels of oil and gas. Another example of China’s growing presence is the Superporto do Açu, a £1.6bn port and industrial complex undergoing construction along the coast of São João da Barra, Rio de Janeiro state, dubbed ‘Little Shanghai.’ Due to open in 2012, Açu’s pier – or, the ‘Highway to China’ – will be two miles long, accommodating huge vessels known as Chinamaxes that will transport iron ore, grain, soy and barrels of oil to the East.

In order for China to continue its unabashed growth (over the past 30 years it has averaged 10%, with the nation recently surpassing Japan as the world’s second largest economy), its industries need to be supplied with sufficient energy and raw materials. Hence, investments such as the Superporto do Açu. They are evidence of China’s ‘going-out strategy’, as the Guardian’s Tom Phillips explains:

An economic and, some say, diplomatic push for Chinese companies, many of them state-run, to invest abroad, snapping up access to minerals, energy and food by pouring the country’s colossal foreign reserves into overseas companies and projects.

But Lopez argues that China has gone from positively influencing the Brazilian economy to in fact reshaping it.

One case is the soy industry. Exports of soy to China, used for tofu and fuel, have increased by around 18 times in value from 2000 to 2009. In Mato Grosso, western Brazil, exports rocketed by 27 times by tonne in the same period, with China buying approximately one-third of the soy grown in the state. This, Lopez concedes, has brought considerable benefits:

[It] has helped everything from local schools to Brazil’s trade balance. The boost is much needed, as Brazilians, now with a strong currency and economy, are importing and spending abroad more — without soy the numbers would be even more skewed.

The agricultural boom has also helped Brazil outshine more developed nations, with surging growth even as much of the rest of the world continues to struggle. The country notched its fastest annual growth in at least 14 years in the first quarter, a pace that has only slightly slowed as the year progresses.

However, the other side of the coin is that China is purchasing soy grains from Brazil, rather than the more expensive soy oil. An analyst at Agroconsult, an agricultural consulting firm based in southern Brazil, told Lopez, “crushing a tonne of soy beans and separating it into oil and soy meal would add about 12 percent to the pricetag.” As a result, Brazil’s soy industry has been stagnating: while there has been more bean production, crushing has seen little investment.

Another industry facing problems is shoemaking. A town in Rio Grande do Sul that was once known as the shoe capital of Brazil has seen its workforce depleted, with Chinese companies inviting Brazilian workers abroad, particularly to the industrial powerhouse of Dongguan, Guangdong province. The results of this were not pretty:

Brazil’s shoe exports fell almost in half by weight from 2004 to 2009, or 22 percent by dollar value. Over the same time, Brazil’s footwear imports from China more than doubled through last year, when anti-dumping measures kicked in. The government has also slapped tariffs on goods ranging from tires to drillbits.

All this activity has produced quite a fanfare. At the 2010 BRIC Summit in Brasilia, Brazil and China both spoke of the need to diversify bilateral trade, lest the Latin American nation become over-reliant on commodities exports. That China continues to invest so heavily in Brazil is also stirring up anxiety in the West, not least since the US was knocked off its pedestal as Brazil’s major trading partner by the Middle Kingdom itself. China has been, and doubtless will continue to be, blatant in its challenge to the US hegemony in Latin America.

Parallels are also quick to be drawn between China’s Brazil – and wider Latin America – policy and its perhaps more controversial one in Africa (a relationship detailed in this brilliant piece by Howard French). Here, too, the East has displayed its thirst for natural resources, while Chinese firms investing in Africa have notoriously preferred bringing in a Chinese workforce rather than using local labour, therefore not benefiting the communities of the host nations.

The Brazil-China relationship is an important one that requires far more attention as global clout continues to shift. How sustainable Brazil’s incessant sale of commodities to China will prove to be is an ongoing issue open to debate.

Brazil is also undergoing a shift of its own: today the country goes to the polls to elect its new President, with Lula’s successor widely tipped to be his protegee, economist Dilma Rousseff. How the country’s new leader will manage China’s growing presence in the world’s eighth largest economy and, as planned, diversify bilateral trade is an exciting prospect to keep an eye on.

The Sino-Japanese downward spiral deepens

The claws are well and truly out. Despite Japan’s release of Chinese fisherman Zhan Qixiong on Friday, China was not satisfied. The following day, it promptly demanded an apology and compensation from Japan, which was just as promptly rejected. In an official statement, China’s Foreign Ministry reiterated that it was “unlawful and invalid for Japan to detain, investigate or take any form of judicial measures against the Chinese fishermen and trawler.”

Zhan was also in agreement, affirming that the Diaoyu islands belong to China. “It’s legal that I go there to fish but it’s illegal that they detained me. I did not violate the law,” he said.

Japan, however, said China’s demand was “unacceptable.” It retorted that the Senkaku islands, as they are also known, belong to Japan itself, and Zhan was violating Japanese law by colliding in the disputed islands.

Since Saturday’s diplomatic faux pas on China’s part, which has unnecessarily deepened a quarrel that may otherwise have been able to rest, Japan has toughened its stance on the Middle Kingdom. Firstly, as the WSJ reports, it asked China to pay for the damage caused to the Japanese patrol boats after Zhan’s collision. “The ball is in China’s court,” Yoshito Sengoku, Japan’s chief government spokesman, said at a press conference today. Former Foreign Minister  Katsuya Okada was also quoted as saying, ”everybody knows that China is not a democratic country, but the latest demand will make that explicit.” Later this afternoon, it was also reported that the Japanese government ordered two Chinese fishery patrol boats to move away from the hotly contested waters.

The heat continues to be turned up. Meanwhile, onlookers are wondering who the winner is, if there indeed is one, as Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan writes:

You wonder what the rest of the countries in Asia are thinking.

Not only did China get its way, everyone else saw it, and saw how it was done, too. You can’t imagine Vietnam, with its own territorial dispute with China, feeling any safer. Or the rest of ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations). Or South Korea. Or the people of Japan, as they watch their leaders capitulate.

Suddenly, everyone desires a referee in all this. Suddenly, everyone wouldn’t mind too much if the United States were around more often. China might have gotten its way this time, but perhaps at the cost of a more vigilant America.

Why China is also a loser in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute

Japanese prosecutors have vowed to free the Chinese captain they arrested two weeks ago after a collision near a set of uninhabited islands disputed between both Japan and China in the East China Sea.

Zhan Qixiong’s ship collided with two Japanese coastguard vessels on 8th September near the Senkaku Islands (known in China as the Diaoyu Islands), which both East Asian nations claim as their own. Zhan was subsequently handed over to prosecutors on the southern Japanese island of Ishigaki, where he was detained and questioned over “intentionally hitting at least one patrol ship and obstructing officers.” If found guilty, he could have faced up to three years in prison.

Today, however, Japan conceded that no damage was intended, but blamed Zhan for ignoring repeated requests to leave the hotly-disputed area.

The row between Japan and China following Zhan’s detention was a key factor in today’s decision making, Japanese prosecutors said. Premier Wen demanded Zhan’s release, claiming Zhan’s detention was illegal, while Tokyo called for high-level bilateral talks between the two nations. However, once Japan extended Zhan’s period of detention, China retaliated by cutting diplomatic communication.

It did not stop there: a selection of Chinese travel agencies cancelled package tours to Japan, while a Chinese ticket agency suspended ticket sales of a Japanese band’s gigs in mainland China, a Japanese tabloid reported. The situation became even stickier yesterday, as The Economist reports:

China’s response seemed to take an especially nefarious turn when it apparently suspended its export of rare-earth minerals, which are vital to making electronics components used in everything from handheld gadgets to cars. On September 23rd China emphatically denied that it is blocking exports.

The row undoubtedly opened a lot of old wounds for China in terms of its national pride, which Tokyo had feared. Since such a substantial part of Chinese nationalism rests on how China battled against foreign humiliation, in particular Japanese oppression, to form a nation, it is unsurprising that this month’s events have garnered such sensitive responses from citizens. Ever more the vehicle for discussion and protest, the Chinese Internet was awash with nationalist sentiment. In the words of one netizen, reposted on ChinaSMACK:

Our national humiliation can never be forgotten. As an ordinary common person, all I can do is be angry and boycott Japanese goods; if there is a war, as a reserve officer, I will not hesitate!

In conceding to China’s heated demands, Japan has, much to China’s relish, perhaps come off from this scenario looking weak and unable to avoid diplomatic pressure from its looming neighbour. That China recently surpassed Japan to become the world’s second-biggest economy is an attest to the Middle Kingdom’s growing prowess.

However, none of this is to say China is the ‘winner’ in this battle for Zhan’s release. As The Economist wrote today, China’s actions have “called into question its maturity as a responsible international actor and undermined its pretensions to a ‘peaceful rise’.” That China should respond so dramatically to such a dispute does its diplomatic image as a global player no favours. Similarly melodramatic responses have plagued the nation throughout the past year, from its stubbornness to agree to legally-binding cuts at Copenhagen to a slew of disputes with the US ranging from Google’s exit to the revaluation of the Renminbi.

However, given China’s knack for holding on to its history tight, in particular the pain inflicted on the nation by Japan, its reaction to this month’s events is perhaps understandable. But understandable only to an extent: China’s obstinacy may well prove to be unsustainable as more and more global players become, simply, fed up of having to deal with a nation that won’t compromise.

For the past year, China has been Japan’s number one trading partner, and so it is in both countries’ interests to maintain diplomatic ties. The nasty effect of this month’s episode on those relations remains to be seen: perhaps the two countries, with a lot of face having been lost, will proceed with business as usual. Perhaps the event may harbour deeper resentment for an inability to progress past historical wounds. In any case, the post-decision “chill” will certainly be felt.

8964: thoughts on social unrest and democracy in China

The Goddess of Democracy. Image from China Digital Times

21 years ago today, Chinese military forces cracked down upon a protest led by students and workers in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Throughout a tumultuous spring, contentions and demonstrations had been building up in the Chinese capital. Deng Xiaoping had ordered the vast and imposing square be cleared by midnight on June 4th “at any cost.” China’s military opened fire on its own people, with the actual death toll remaining unknown today.

Aside from the tragic loss of life, Tiananmen is an important reminder not only of how social contentious can boil dramatically, but also the severity of China’s strategies of dealing with unrest. Today’s leaders remain so haunted by June 4th that maintaining social stability is their paramount aim.

However, in the West there is often tendency to romanticise the events of June 4th as a nationwide push for democracy. This is misleading for two reasons. Firstly, the reality is that the protests were divided into one group seeking fewer democratic reforms (workers) and other group seeking more (students). Secondly, the very notion of democracy in China is not one most Chinese might identify with. It is a grey area, a far cry from the black-and-white discourses that so often come out of the West.

Despite growth in various incomes, the 1980s saw a rise in widespread discontent amongst workers who felt Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms had gone too far. Inflation hit rates of around 18% and even peaked at 30% in urban areas by 1988-9. For the majority of China’s population, this was the first experience of such economic downturn, panic buying and the threat of unemployment.

Corruption was also rife, in part a result of the shortages in employment. These shortages triggered black marketing and smuggling, often organised by cadres or their children, weakening the already waning citizen faith in leadership. Although such unrest was also recognised at top levels – rectification campaigns in the mid-1980s sought to rid the leadership of nepotism, corruption and expenditure of public funds for higher officials’ personal gifts – the lack of any concrete change meant political instability could coalesce.

In light of this, students and intellectuals, in particular, felt Deng’s reforms had become stagnant. The discord between the government and these groups had been brewing since the mid-80s: for instance, a large student demonstrations in 1986 in Hefei, Anhui Province, which called for greater democratisation in China was swiftly repressed.

The catalyst came with the death of Hu Yaobang in April 1989, two years after his resignation from the position of Secretary General. Since the Anhui unrest, he had called for rapid reform in China. Around 30,000 students gathered to mourn him in Tiananmen Square, demanding continued liberalisation and the founding of unions for students and workers, as well as to simply mourn in public freely.

The course of the spring saw non-violent protest escalate into petitions being made to the Standing Committee of the Politburo, hunger strikes, the boycotting of university classes and instructions to state media from Secretary General Zhao Ziyang to spread more favourable coverage of the chaotic events.  Martial law was eventually declared, and despite initial civilian resistance, by dawn on 4th June Tiananmen Square had been emptied. Estimates of those killed range from 300 to tens of thousands.

To brand this tumultuous spring a ‘pro-democracy movement’ is wrong. Although the movement was a grassroots one, it did not cover or come from all of the lower stratas of society.

This leads us deeper into the contentious issue of democracy in China. Simply, China’s breakneck economic growth, which has led it to being the third largest economy in the world, has presided over political reforms. This has largely been met with pride, rather than resentment, from the Chinese public: the fact that China has achieved an economic superpower status at such a rapid speed and against a historical backdrop of a ‘century of humiliation’ (namely the Opium Wars, the Japanese occupation, the loss of Taiwan and America’s bid to contain the PRC) has bolstered public nationalist sentiment.

Further, these economic reforms have lifted around four hundred million out of poverty since 1980. It is of little surprise that maintaining new living standards presides over pushing for abstract democratic reforms. Han Han has summarised this:

To a lot of Chinese people, the value of seeking such things [freedom, truth, justice] is not nearly as high as seeking an apartment building or an online game to play.


This is a race of people who can eat genetically modified grain and oil distilled from recycled food scraps, drink melamine-infused milk, and take inferior vaccines. Their tolerance is higher than you can imagine. Their needs are lower than you can imagine.

This is not to say, however, that Chinese citizens are completely socially or politically apathetic. The country’s contentions have indeed been multiplying, from netizens’ appeals for social justice to environmental demonstrations, from unrest over the restrictive hukou (household registration) system to recent labour strikes. But democracy as a concept is sought by only a few: it is for this reason that the daring Charter 08 did not resonate widely beyond an intellectual urbanite collective.

It is therefore safe to ask, should China be expected to follow a Western track of democratisation, given that the majority of its society does not demand it? Pan Wei has argued that the CCP’s single party rule could be made more efficient and corruption lessened by the rule of law, an impartial civil service and an independent judiciary. These top-down reforms would avoid both the collapse of the CCP and an evolution toward Western style electoral democracy, in theory creating greater government accountability without de-legitimising the CCP’s monopoly on power.

China will not, cannot and should not transform into a democracy overnight. But incremental legal changes, as suggested by Pan Wei, are of the essence, especially since this particular anniversary occurs at a time of unrest and when social inequalities triggering macabre acts of revenge. Indeed, China’s very contradiction is that antiquated mechanisms of hardline suppression are still being used to deal with newly brimming contentions, which are now coming from a wider variety of actors than ever before.

If Tiananmen has taught the CCP anything, it is that more sustainable and effective strategies of dealing with unrest need to be developed that go beyond repression. These are necessary if the CCP is to legitimise one party rule and lessen any chances of political or social instability. Otherwise, social contentions will continue to ferment. While these may not add up to another Tiananmen, they will certainly increase the volume of one question: when will political reform catch up with economic deliverance?

To commemorate the anniversary, China Digital Times will be posting a series of original news stories from the spring of 1989.

China promises to work with US on Iran sanctions

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Hu Jintao has pledged to join the US in negotiations over a new package of sanctions against Iran. Speaking at the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington DC, White House national security aide Jeffrey Bader said, “they’re prepared to work with us,” heralding the talks as “another sign of international unity on this issue”.

The summit features representatives from 47 countries, all attending to discuss nuclear proliferation and related terrorism issues. China, who depends on Iran for 11% of its energy needs, has been hesitant in joining Western nations in putting together a set of sanctions against Tehran.

But, according to a Chinese statement issued today, “China and the United States share the same overall goal on the Iranian nuclear issue.” Chinese spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said he hoped for greater global diplomacy in dealing with it. “China always believes that dialogue and negotiation are the best way out for the issue. Pressure and sanctions cannot fundamentally solve it,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu added.

However, Iran seemed indifferent about today’s events. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said that President Hu’s pledge did not mean Beijing was ready to support sanctions. He summarised, Tehran does not “consider the statement as approval of the U.S. stance and unfair actions.”

The reportedly “upbeat” negotiations may well be telling of the icy Sino-US ties getting a touch warmer. However, it will be some time before breakthroughs occur, not least since President Hu made no specific commitment regarding tough sanctions. Why? China would, as China Hearsay’s Stan Abrams says, take a tough hit in agreeing to sanctions, purely because of the aforementioned importance of Iran in terms of China’s energy needs.

Still, Obama may be able to sleep a little easier this evening in the belief that China might just be on a path to being a more “responsible” global player. The path is a long one, but small steps can never hurt.