The West must stand up to China, says Kapil Komireddi

According to freelance writer Kapil Komireddi, writing on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, the West needs to promptly stand up to the monolith that is China, rather than sit back and let it expand and continue its oppressive regime.

Erasing its own history, massacring its own people, shielding genocidal dictatorships abroad, bullying its neighbours, China is an expansionist power without a conscience. There is much that is wrong with the west – and liberal democracies elsewhere – but imagine a world in which China can no longer be held to account. That future is not very far. But if the west continues to cower, it will be here sooner than we think.

Indeed, China’s expansion has not been a peaceful one. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, to cite the two most obvious examples of Mao’s dictatorial quest for a communist society, took the lives of millions. The student and worker protests in Tiananmen Square in June 1989 ended fatally, with precise figures of those killed by Deng Xiaoping’s troops still unknown. The People’s Republic continues to crack down on those who criticise the legitimacy of the Communist Party: case in point, Charter 08 co-author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who is almost one year into his 11-year sentence for inciting subversion.

China is also quick to show its obstinate side out on the diplomatic stage. The recent spat with Japan over a Chinese fisherman who collided with Japanese coastguards in disputed waters produced no winners: China cut diplomatic communications with Japan when they refused to release the fisherman, and promptly demanded an apology and compensation once the fisherman was handed back to the Middle Kingdom. Last year’s Copenhagen climate summit saw similar head banging: the West called on China to abide by legally binding cuts; China said no. China’s role in Africa is also notoriously controversial, with China known for having supplied war-torn Sudan with arms, for example.

So it seems that the Middle Kingdom could benefit from the West taking it down a peg or two. We have seen this happen of late: by the Nobel Committee awarding Liu Xiaobo with this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, China’s poor human rights record has been brought into question, and the work of a relentless and brave dissident has received wider circulation. The West essentially told China it is wrong in continuing cracking down on dissent.

But my issue with Komireddi’s piece is that it is endemic of a simplified, black-and-white vision of China that does no justice to the complexity of the country. Komireddi writes that “China is not a substantially freer country today than it was a decade ago.” But what he means by ‘free’ is unclear, as he fails to consider what such a wide-ranging term could mean to the average Chinese person. It might be the freedom to feed your family comfortably or buy a house; yet Komireddi overlooks how Chinese citizens might take pride in the country’s intense economic strengthening more so than Western notions of ‘freedom’.

He adds that new media, used by more and more disgruntled citizens to voice their concerns of the state, is used just as quickly by the government to monitor and crack down on contentious actors. This is true, the piece’s next paragraph raises an issue:

Liu’s [Xiaobo] plight casts light also on the fundamental uselessness of the so-called “social networking” sites. If Facebook could foment revolutions, Liu’s Charter 08 would have attracted many more signatories than the 8,000 it managed.

It is puzzling that Komireddi did not mention another, more significant reason Charter 08 did not receive overwhelming support within China: because so few of the nation’s 1.3 billion people could in fact relate to the ideals of democracy, multi-party elections and freedom of expression that Liu was calling for. Blogger Han Han alluded to this theme some months ago, in response to Google’s dramatic exit from China:

Perhaps Google thought that freedom, truth, justice, and other such things would mean a lot to a large portion of Chinese netizens. But in reality, these things are nothing compared to a finding a 100 RMB bill on the street.

He also fails to place China’s rise in an appropriate and critical historical context that accounts for why China behaves the way it does with the rest of the global cast. No doubt about it, China is stubborn, but this is in large part due to the ‘century of humiliation’ the country endured at the hands of foreign powers. For example, Japan’s second invasion of China, during World War Two, saw the infamous massacre and rape of hundreds of thousands in Nanjing. With China unable to truly forgive and forget, relations still remain strained between the two.

None of this is to say the West should “cower” to China. Indeed, if China wants to be respected as a global player, it must banish the idea that it can play by its own rules, a’ la the Copenhagen climate summit.

But by at least understanding and acknowledging the country’s complexities, both past and present, the West’s discourse on China can move beyond antagonism. Journalism such as Komireddi’s will only end up serving the opposite purpose.

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What’s happened since Liu Xiaobo’s win?

Less than a week has passed since Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” The fallout since then has been heated, and few China-related tweets go by without a mention of Liu or what his prize will mean for the prospect of political reform in China. Tiananmen veteran Wu’er Kaixi has argued that Liu’s win will give the West a much-needed chance to engage better with China and place pressure on it to improve its human rights record, while Kerry Brown has drawn parallels between Beijing’s knee-jerk response and China’s internal weakness.

The points below are a summary of the events that followed news of Liu’s win.

  • Elated reactions were rife on Twitter, as ChinaGeeks covered in the minutes after Liu was announced as the winner. Pro-democracy demonstrations led by human rights activists also quickly ensued in Hong Kong.
  • Chinese media censors blacked out broadcasts of the news. This was followed by the Foreign Ministry slamming the prize, calling it a “blasphemy” and an insult to the people of China.
  • Later that evening (8th October), Liu Xia travelled in police custody to the Liaoning prison her husband is serving his 11-year sentence in. Over the weekend, reports surfaced that she had “gone missing”, after her lawyer and concerned friends revealed they could not contact her. Eventually, she tweeted that she had met her husband, who, having cried upon being told of his win, dedicated the prize to the “dead spirits of Tiananmen.” She also added that his prison conditions had improved since the Nobel, with staff now giving him better food.
  • Also during the weekend, up to 30 Chinese intellectuals were detained, warned or placed under house arrest in an attempt to contain celebrations of Liu’s win. The Guardian’s Jonathan Watts reports that many were connected to a Stockholm-based freedom of expression group, of which Liu was also a member. Around 20 were celebrating in Beijing when police broke up the party.
  • On Monday it was revealed that Liu Xia had been placed under house arrest, and remains skeptical of whether she will be able to leave China to collect her husband’s award. Her phone has been cut and she is forbidden from leaving her apartment in Beijing. Journalists have tried to secure interviews with her, but to no avail: Al Jazeera’s Melissa K. Chan posted this clip of her own attempt today.
  • China also kept to its word when it told Norway that awarding Liu the prize could damage relations between Oslo and Beijing by promptly cancelling a meeting with a Norwegian fisheries minister. It also cut a Norwegian musical due to be performed next month in Beijing.
  • Finally, China Media Project translated an open letter penned by CCP veterans that called for increased freedom of speech, an abolition of censorship, and for there to be “no more taboos concerning our Party’s history”. However, confusion has sparked over whether the letter was indeed sparked by Liu’s win: at the bottom, it is dated 1st October 2010, seven days before the Nobel Committee awarded Liu the prize.

 

[Updated] Liu Xiaobo awarded Nobel Peace Prize

Liu Xiaobo

Unbeknown to him, Liu Xiaobo was this afternoon awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Nobel Committee chose Liu for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”

The Twittersphere exploded; from widespread news of the announcement’s transmission being cut in China to netizens’ celebratory meetups being organised (and, in some cases, cancelled for fear of police reprisals). Beijing responded furiously to the news, calling Liu’s win a “blasphemy to the peace prize.”

Quoted in The Guardian, outspoken writer Liao Yiwu said:

As Liu’s best friend, I am so happy I can’t describe what I feel. This is a big moment in Chinese history. It will greatly promote democratic developments in China and it is a huge encouragement to us and our friends.

There has been an influx of reactions to the news, with more likely to seep in. Full reports from The Guardian can be found here and here. At Forbes, Gady Epstein discusses what the prize, Liu himself and China’s other dissidents stand for, while more personal accounts of Liu have been penned by Evan Osnos at the New Yorker, and Channel 4’s Lindsey Hilsum. Over at the Christian Science Monitor, meanwhile, Peter Ford weighs up the possible harm today’s win could cause to China’s other human rights activists.

Charter 08, the pro-democracy manifesto that landed Liu in jail last December, is available to read here.

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.

China upholds Liu Xiaobo sentence

Liu Xiaobo

This may come as no surprise to most of us, but the sad news reached us today that China has upheld Liu Xiaobo’s sentencing to 11 years in prison for subversion of state power.

US ambassador Jon Huntsman said,

We are disappointed by the Chinese Government’s decision. (…) We believe that he should not have been sentenced in the first place and should be released immediately.

Amnesty International, meanwhile, said China had missed an opportunity to ‘right a wrong’. Roseann Rife, an Asia-Pacific official for the organisation, said,

His harsh sentence is a stark reminder to the Chinese people and the world that there is still no freedom of expression or independent judiciary in China.

This also follows the recent sentencing of Tan Zuoren, who faces five years for seeking to document the poor construction of the schools that fatally collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

Today’s poignant decision cast a sombre mood over those caught in the struggle for China’s democratisation. As Michael Anti tweeted,

Feb 11, 1990, Mandela walked out of the jail. 20 yrs later, Feb 11, 2010, Li Xiaobo was confirmed 11 yrs sentence.

Liu Xiaobo’s Trial is the morning call for every Chinese democrat. See you soon, my dear Mr Mandela.

Liu Xiaobo: “I hope to be the last victim of China’s endless literary inquisition.”

Liu Xiaobo

 

China Digital Times today posted Liu Xiaobo’s poignant final statement, originally written two days prior to his sentencing on Christmas Day 2009. The whole piece is worthy of your attention, but here are a few excerpts that stood out to me:

 

I look forward to my country being a land of free expression, where all citizens’ speeches are treated the same; here, different values, ideas, beliefs, political views… both compete with each other and coexist peacefully; here, majority and minority opinions will be given equal guarantees, in particular, political views different from those in power will be fully respected and protected; here, all political views will be spread in the sunlight for the people to choose; all citizens will be able to express their political views without fear, and will never be politically persecuted for voicing dissent; I hope to be the last victim of China’s endless literary inquisition, and that after this no one else will ever be jailed for their speech.

 

Simply for expressing divergent political views and taking part in a peaceful and democratic movement, a teacher loses his podium, a writer loses the right to publish, and a public intellectual loses the chance to speak publicly, which is a sad thing, both for myself as an individual, and for China after three decades of reform and opening up.

 

I still want to tell the regime that deprives me of my freedom, I stand by the belief I expressed twenty years ago in my “June Second hunger strike declaration”— I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who have monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentence me, are my enemies. While I’m unable to accept your surveillance, arrest, prosecution or sentencing, I respect your professions and personalities (…) For hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation’s spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy.

 

I firmly believe that China’s political progress will never stop, and I’m full of optimistic expectations of freedom coming to China in the future, because no force can block the human desire for freedom. China will eventually become a country of the rule of law in which human rights are supreme. I’m also looking forward to such progress being reflected in the trial of this case, and look forward to the full court’s just verdict ——one that can stand the test of history.

 

Freedom of expression is the basis of human rights, the source of humanity and the mother of truth. To block freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, to strangle humanity and to suppress the truth.

 

But my love for you [Liu Xia] is full of guilt and regret, sometimes heavy enough hobble my steps. I am a hard stone in the wilderness, putting up with the pummeling of raging storms, and too cold for anyone to dare touch. But my love is hard, sharp, and can penetrate any obstacles. Even if I am crushed into powder, I will embrace you with the ashes.

I do not feel guilty for following my constitutional right to freedom of expression, for fulfilling my social responsibility as a Chinese citizen. Even if accused of it, I would have no complaints. Thank you!

Chinese media in 2010

2010 is already off to a chapping start, but things aren’t so icy on the Chinese media front. Tania Branigan has given us this succinct report of how citizen activism, political discussion, tighter censorship and propaganda struggles could well intensify this year. Things have already kicked off, with cyber activism going full steam ahead: recently, netizens have been tweeting away and registering the Internet domain name CN4IRAN.org in support of December’s protests in Tehran.

The kind folk over at China Media Project have translated and served up a guide to this year’s direction of external news and propaganda. According to the country’s State Council Information Office (SCIO), China “must effectively engage the international struggle for public opinion” and “raise our nation’s cultural soft power.”

And, true to form, no time has been wasted in following through. In the past two days, IMDB has been blocked (although access to CN4IRAN.org remains free-flowing), and Tibetan filmmaker Dhongdup Wangchen has been jailed for six years for his documentary, Leaving Fear Behind, which highlighted Tibetan anger with Chinese policies before the 2008 Olympics. In the past week, the New York Times also reported that Liu Xiaobo appealed the 11 year sentence handed to him on Christmas Day, which has 45 days to be considered.

This also may well be a big year for Ai Weiwei (whose 2009 wasn’t exactly quiet, either). Besides setting up the Earthquake Student Names Citizen’s Investigation, which found around 5000 names of children who died during the Sichuan earthquake, the artist has been busy tweeting and speaking out against the CCP’s various moves. Most recently, he has been heralded as the ‘new model for the intellectuals’.

For now, let’s keep a sharp eye on 2010 and see if Ai Weiwei’s following statement (kindly translated by C.Custer over at ChinaGeeks) will be realised through more action, both online and off:

Today, the government is a part of us, and we are a part of the government; society is a part of us, and we are a part of society. Everyone must assume [this responsibility], whether it’s in their consciousness, part of their mentality, or it’s something they do; everyone is expressing how they want society to be.