I happened to be in Chengdu during the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize wrangle. Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, an imprisoned human rights activist, became the third person to receive the prestigious award while in detention. When his prize was announced in October, Beijing denounced the award and subsequently pressured governments to refrain from attending the ceremony.

Most Chinese I met during my trip did not know much at all about Liu, but some — even those who basically support the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) — were quite critical of how the government mishandled the situation.

Liu was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment at the end of 2009 for coauthoring the Charter 2008 manifesto. It is a plea for political reform, which states: “After experiencing a prolonged period of human rights disasters and a tortuous struggle and resistance, the awakening Chinese citizens are increasingly and more clearly recognizing that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal common values shared by all humankind, and that democracy, a republic, and constitutionalism constitute the basic structural framework of modern governance. A ‘modernization’ bereft of these universal values and this basic political framework is a disastrous process that deprives humans of their rights, corrodes human nature, and destroys human dignity.”

One China hand I met in Chengdu said, “Liu is a widely respected intellectual who emphasizes peaceful political transition. Charter 2008 is not only a criticism of the CCP, it is a blueprint for change laying out a vision for multiparty democracy that the CCP always argues is inappropriate and has no roots in China. Awarding him the prize is an international approval of his views that raises his stature and profile; someone who already enjoys considerable respect among the Chinese and who is questioning one party democracy. Many Chinese are proud of him, and this is what worries the CCP. He is a symbol of what they fear. The overreaction to his Nobel Peace Prize award is a sign of weakness and fear about the potentially subversive consequences.”

He may be right about Liu enjoying respect, but hardly anyone I met during my stay knew about Charter 2008, or about Liu and/or why he is imprisoned.

One day, while writing up notes at a Chengdu coffee shop, a middle-aged, shaven-headed man asked if he could sit down and I assented with as little enthusiasm as I could muster.

I later felt bad about having feared this would be one of those “English conversation moments,” because he turned out to be an interesting observer. Mr. X called himself a patriot and disillusioned cadre, who thinks the CCP has gone astray and lost its moral authority because too many of his colleagues were “common thieves.”

As our conversation wandered to the Nobel, he said, “Liu made his name at Tiananmen Square (during the 1989 protests) . . . and was moderate. He is known among intellectuals, but has no popular following. The danger is that (the Nobel prize) gives status and might spread his name and purpose. If you ask, maybe 99 percent of Chinese don’t know about Charter 2008. The government wants to keep it that way. It is subversive and telling the CCP that its time is up.”

He went on to add, “But the Party has now given him all the publicity it was trying to avoid. This was dumb, showing he is right (about CCP authoritarianism). Much smarter to just ignore him, let him get the prize, even release him. People these days are much more concerned about money, cars, apartments and wanting to get rich. There is no chance of him leading a mass movement for political reform. Maybe a few people, but most won’t risk it. So the government looks both weak and bad.”

And because Net-savvy cybercitizens can easily evade the censorship of the Great Firewall, information about Liu spread more than might have been the case otherwise. But my cynical friend said that Charter 2008 won’t reprise the incendiary anti-Soviet Charter 77 issued by Czech dissidents, because China offers “golden handcuffs” of growing prosperity. (JK)

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