The sentencing of a dissident to 11 years in jail on Christmas Day is the latest brick in the wall that the Chinese government is erecting in an effort to insulate that nation from the tide of history. Mr. Liu Xiaobo’s crime? Being one of more than 300 people who signed Charter 08, a direct appeal for political liberalization in China. The verdict is a reminder of the intolerance and brute force that are the cornerstones of the Chinese political system.
Mr. Liu is no stranger to controversy. He was a literature professor and writer who joined the protesters who occupied Tiananmen Square in the spring of 1989. As the end neared and the bloody denouement became all but inevitable, he encouraged the demonstrators to leave the square peacefully. After the crackdown, he was detained and held for 21 months without trial. In 1996, he was sent to a labor camp for three years after publicly calling for the release of those imprisoned for joining the protests.
Fired from his teaching job, he became a trenchant essayist and social critic, penning numerous analyses of the Chinese political and social system and posting them on the Internet. What most infuriated the Chinese leadership was his authorship of Charter 08, a document modeled after Charter 77, a Cold War appeal for reform by Czechoslovakian dissidents. Charter 08 called for political liberalization, rule of law and the right to genuinely free speech and other human rights. More than 300 people, including some of the country’s best-known intellectuals and human rights activists, originally signed the charter. After being posted on the Internet — and despite being subject to the censorship imposed by the “Great Firewall of China” — the petition attracted an estimated 10,000 signatures.
Mr. Liu was the only person arrested for signing the charter, although a number of others have reportedly been harassed; around one-quarter of the signatories are said to have been questioned by police. After a year in detention, he was tried in December in a proceeding that lasted less than three hours. The verdict was announced on Christmas Day: Found guilty of “inciting subversion to state power,” Mr. Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison. His lawyers have said they will appeal, but the track record of such efforts is poor.
The sentence triggered worldwide criticism from governments and rights activists. China responded, predictably, that such comments were interference in its internal affairs.
In isolation the verdict is troubling enough. Mr. Liu never advocated the overthrow of the Chinese Communist Party; rather, Charter 08 calls for an end to one-party rule. Fortunately for the authorities, the statute under which he was tried — “spreading rumors or slander or any other means to subvert the state power or overthrow the socialist system” — is vague enough to encompass a wide range of activities; indeed, it is hard to tell what is excluded.
When the trial is taken in context, it is even more disturbing. Lawyers who defend activists or others prepared to challenge the “official line” — by demanding, for example, investigations into the circumstances of school collapses in the Sichuan earthquake, or the tainted milk scandal, or the treatment of AIDS victims — have had their licenses revoked or been put out of business on charges of tax evasion. Last year, a prominent environmental activist was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison on the same charge as Mr. Liu. Censorship of the Internet is increasing and becoming even more onerous.
Some see Beijing’s readiness to flex those muscles as a sign of strength and confidence. Buoyed by its economic dynamism and the international status that its impressive economic growth has created, China’s leaders are less tolerant of criticism and more inclined to ignore those who demand that it hew to international human rights norms. At the same time, China’s leaders are also aware of the growing social strains in their country and are working to ensure that any cracks do not spread. This case signals that the limits of the government’s tolerance are quite low. That is a sign of weakness, not of strength.
While we do not believe that much is to be gained by international insults and vocal public diplomacy that forces countries into corners, that does not mean that governments and human rights activists should ignore these offenses. It is clear that the instincts of the Chinese leadership are to suppress dissent. The notion that success would breed tolerance in Beijing is an illusion. For Beijing’s elites, “pragmatism” on the part of its diplomatic partners appears to be synonymous with indifference, a readiness to overlook its excesses and its violations of human rights in the name of a smooth economic relationship.
That misperception must end. The message must be sent that business as usual is not an option. If China wishes to be treated as a “responsible stakeholder,” then it should act as such. It has signed human rights covenants that it routinely violates. It is no violation of its internal affairs to demand that Beijing honor international agreements it has joined. Mr. Liu, and others like him, should not be punished for merely speaking their minds.
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