Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo should remind the world of two things about China: one pessimistic, one optimistic. The former: The Chinese Communist Party is accustomed to controlling all politics at home and has not loosened its grip on political debate one iota. The latter: Liu is one Chinese of many who are fighting for, indeed risking their lives for, democratic change in China.
Consider the party’s behavior. First it tried to bully the Nobel committee into abandoning its consideration of Liu. Then, it engaged in its familiar threatening and bullying rhetoric even after the deed was done. The party’s propaganda and internal control apparatus removed any mention of Liu’s victory in China’s media. Then it announced that Sino-Norwegian ties would be damaged, notwithstanding the fact that the government in Oslo has nothing to do with the Nobel committee’s decisions. This is a ruling party that seems not to understand that the rest of the world does not work in accordance with the party’s precepts. Note to observers of China: In China there is no such thing as an independent civil body. So Beijing assumes that other governments can, with a wave of a hand (or the shake of an iron fist), stop political activity considered objectionable by a ruling government.
All the nongovernmental organizations we hear about operating in China, while doing great work, can be shut down at the whim of a Communist Party leader. China assumes the same about other countries. It wants to conduct its relations with others through official government channels and get others to pretend that the Communist Party is China. Liu’s case is proof positive that nothing can be further from the truth. There are many Chinese who want nothing to do with the party, in fact, who are working toward its demise. The mistake we often make is to limit our engagement with China to the party and therefore ignore the many Chinese who desperately disagree with their government and want another direction for their country. Unfortunately, the party still dominates. This leads to the type of behavior we have seen recently from China in the South China Sea and with Japan, where it expects others to bend to the party’s will. Accustomed to getting its way at home, the party is left befuddled when it cannot do so abroad, hence the empty threats aimed at the Norwegian government. Ironically for China, these histrionics amplify the case of Liu and attract more attention. Now the world can read not only about Liu’s accomplishments, but also witness China’s very bizarre reaction.
That leads to the good news. While the party remains dominant, there are many Liu’s within China working for change. If they do not like China’s authoritarian ways at home, chances are they do not like China’s authoritarian ways abroad (ignoring international law in the South China Sea, forcing Japan to abandon its own legal procedures in the case of captain Zhan Qixiong). They are the hope for a truly peaceful rise for China. While most governments ignore them — it is obviously easier to deal with the party and avoid the tension that engagement with China’s democrats would bring — the Nobel committee has not. Perhaps other democracies, like our own, will begin to take the Liu’s of China and what they stand for more seriously and conduct an engagement policy that engages all of China.