China’s Long March to Modernity

Beijing’s response to the award of the Nobel Peace Price to a leading
Chinese dissident tells us something important about the country’s
transition

By Joern-Carsten Gottwald, Neil Collins and Andrew Cottey

For the first time in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize a citizen of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was awarded this most prestigious award. And for the first time, nobody was in Oslo to receive the award. Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese professor of literature and democratic activist, spent the day in a Chinese jail. His wife was not allowed to leave the country. She is
held in virtual custody in her Beijing apartment. Other representatives of China’s intelligentsia were not allowed to leave the country. As the result of a furious campaign of the Chinese leadership, a group of countries decided not to let their Ambassadors to Norway attend the ceremony. For good reasons, the European Union for once did not let itself be bullied.

A lot has been written about the decision to award the Noble Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo who first gained prominence as a political activist during the peaceful demonstrations at Beijing Tian’an Men Square in the Spring of 1989. In 2008, Liu was one of the masterminds behind the Charter 08, a document calling for the full implementation of human and civil rights as
guaranteed in the Chinese Constitution but not respected in everyday life. The Charter 08 was a modest, reasonable and carefully drafted call for political reform, though it admittedly calls for an end to the communist monopoly of power. In December 2009 Liu was sentenced to a 11-year jail term for his role in drafting Charter 08. When the Nobel Committee decided to award the Peace Prize to Liu, the Chinese leadership first mounted an international campaign to have the prize withdrawn if impossible and then tried to persuade states not to attend the ceremony.
China’s reaction to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu tells us some important things about the China of the early twenty-first century. First, despite China’s remarkable economic development over the last three decades and its status as the world’s rising superpower, the Chinese communist regime remains wary and defensive. Above all, the Chinese leadership fears that socio-economic discontent combined with the demands of dissidents such as Liu, could produce the fall of the Communist Party ­ as it did in Eastern Europe in 1989. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has kept a tight control of political power. It has changed tremendously since the years of Mao Zedong, yet it preserves its control of leading positions in the state, media, societal organisations and large enterprises. China has made substantial progress in improving its legal system in honouring human rights. The courts and judges are, however, subject to CCP supervision and control. Human rights lawyers and environmental activists test the boundaries of what is accepted by the leadership on a daily basis. Unfortunately, over the last few years, their room for free discussion and activities has declined.

Second, the Chinese regime remains extremely sensitive to anything that may be perceived as interference in its internal affairs. Here, history plays a powerful part: in the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, the European powers, Japan and the US carved up imperial China and took advantage of its weakness. This century of national humiliation plays strongly in China and the Communist Party’s claim to have restored China¹s place amongst the leading powers is a central part of the Party’s claim to legitimacy.
Third, China’s leadership is currently engaged in a battle for succession and this plays into the debate on how to respond to the Nobel award to Liu. In 2012/13, the great majority ofthe top positions in party and state will change hands. The so-called ‘princelings’, offspring from Communist political dynasties, and other groups in the leadership are manouvering for influence. No leadership candidate can afford to appear weak in relations with the outside world. Internal Chinese politics therefore reinforces the
pressure on the country’s leaders to take a tough line.

What conclusions should we draw? One is that, unless and until there is real political change in Beijing, China will remain deeply sensitive over issues of human rights. Was the Nobel Committee right to award the Peace Prize to Mr. Liu? Some argue that such actions only provoke China and do nothing for the cause of human rights and that a softly, softly approach of engaging China behind closed doors and supporting technical reforms in areas such as the judicial system has more effect. The truth is probably that the international community’s ability to influence China over human rights is limited: neither a tough nor a soft approach will fundamentally change China’s human rights behaviour in the short run. Nevertheless, we should not abandon the cause of human rights. In the long term, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize helps to keep the flame of human rights alive in China and ensures that China and other authoritarian regimes cannot completely ignore or abandon universal human rights commitments. The spontaneous parties in the streets and apartments in Beijing and Shanghai following the news of the award of Peace Prize show the popularity of Liu’s demands at least among urban intellectuals. The West must continue to balance political and
economic engagement with China with a principled commitment to human rights.

Jörn-Carsten Gottwald , Neil Collins and Andrew Cottey are political
scientists at University College Cork.

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One thought on “China’s Long March to Modernity

  1. The Chinese people I encounter have a very jaundiced, and justifiably jaundiced, perception of the West’s principled commitment to human rights. The kind of topics that come up include the nature of the political governance that allowed financial capitalism to run riot and almost cause a replication of the Great Depression, the prosecution of what was most likely an illegal war in Iraq at huge human and financial cost and continued support for West-friendly dictators who crack down on any form of civil dissent and foment the rise of fundamentalist Islam.

    We might garner more respect if we were prepared to acknowledge the beam in our own eye (and do something about it) before we seek to remove the mote from our brother’s eye.

    And while by no means condoning their repressive natures, I find that some authoritarian regimes are often more responsive to public needs and more receptive to evidence-based policy making than many governments in so-called developed democracies who are in hock to vested interests and rely on their executive dominance to achieve their objectives.

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