When can China become a truly great nation?
On Liu Xiaobo’s winning of the Nobel
Szeto, Lok-tin Alex
Member of Management Committee, HKCI
President, Unitarian Universalists Hong Kong
China grows rapidly in economy
Economically, the People's Republic of China might be considered as a great nation. China is the world's fastest-growing major economy, with average growth rates of 10% for the past 30 years, and she has become the world's second largest economy after the United States by purchasing power parity ($8.77 trillion in 2009). These remarkable economic achievements are further crowned by the magnificent 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the wildly popular World Expo in Shanghai. With the outbreak of the world-wide financial crisis in 2008, which threatens to bring majority of world economies into a long-term recession, the role of the strong and growing China as a stabilizing factor in world economy has become more important than ever. As a result, world leaders tend to pay “respect” to China, focusing on trade relationships and downplaying her political and human rights issues.
The formula of the Beijing administration is clear: economics first, leave politics behind; protect social stability in the expense of freedom of expression. While Premier Wen Jiabao reassured Time’s reporter Fareed Zakaria on CNN that “freedom of speech is indispensible for any country,” the infamous Great Firewall of China is keeping her citizens ignorant of all “sensitive” matters. Chinese activists’ Gmail accounts had been systematically hacked, which prompted Google to once heroically withdraw from the Chinese market. Political reform had been a lip service for many years. Nearly a thousand (US government's Congressional-Executive Commission on China reported 920 cases in 2008) political prisoners, including scholars, journalists, and lawyers, are still kept behind bars.
Liu Xiaobo was deprived of human rights
It is against this background that the Chinese literary critic and poet Liu Xiaobo, now 54, drafted the Charter 08 (yes, in 2008) to urge for political reform, democracy, respect of human rights, and rule of law. The manifesto states beautifully at its opening 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.” The document was initially signed by a handful of Chinese intellectuals, but eventually managed to gather more than one million co-signatories worldwide. The Chinese government, however, high-handedly arrested Liu for “inciting subversion of state power” and sentenced him to eleven years of imprisonment, the longest term for dissidents observers could recall in recent years. At least 70 of its 303 original signatories have been summoned or interrogated by police while domestic media have been banned from reporting on the manifesto.
Finally, on October 8, Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee complimented Liu “for his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” The reaction of Beijing serves as a big scar on her international image. Even before the award decision was made, China had tried to influence through political pressure on the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Fu Ying, Deputy Foreign Minister of China, warned the Nobel Committee not to award the Peace Prize to Liu. After the announcement of the Prize, China is like being caught in white terror. An army of public security guards poured into the district in which Liu’s wife Liu Xia lives and set up dozens of state security blockades. Liu Xia was put under house arrest, “violation of public security regulations” was the charge. Her phone was ruined and she lost contact with the outside world. She was escorted by public security to the prison to visit her husband. Nevertheless, she managed to tell the world that “this award is not only to Liu Xiaobo, but also to all the Chinese people upholding democratic peace and all prisoners of conscience; Liu also said the Prize is to be dedicated to the dead victims of ‘June Fourth’ [the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989].” Needless to say, all domestic media and the Internet have been meticulously cleansed of the news that Liu won the Nobel. Internationally, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is quick to blast the dissident's Nobel Peace Prize “blasphemy.” Another naïve move of China is to punish the poor little Norway by cancelling a planned official meeting with the latter’s Fisheries Minister. This demonstrates to the whole world China’s own misconception that the state may control independent organizations such as the Nobel Committee.
Reactions and comments flourish in Hong Kong
Hong Kong and Macau are the only two cities in China in which one can openly celebrate and comment on Liu Xiaobo, and the democratic movement in general. The reactions in Hong Kong seem to be much more active than those in Macau. The “Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movement of China” will hold a series of activities, including a protest in front of the Liaison Office (central government’s office in Hong Kong), a postcard signature campaign, a motion in the Legislative Council (Hong Kong’s law-making body) to “support release of Liu Xiaobo,” a candlelight vigil, an advertising campaign, processions and demonstrations, and a party of celebration.
postcard signature campaign
Commentaries flourished in Hong Kong local newspapers. Ma Ngok, Associate Professor of Politics and Administration in the Chinese University of Hong Kong, borrowed the words of the 1998 Nobel laureate Amartya Sen to answer China’s favourite propaganda “development is king.” “But what is ‘development’?” asked Ma. He quoted Amartya Sen that “development” is the process of making people enjoy true freedom. Ma goes on to point out that the concept of “development” in the West has always been holistic: including elevation of educational levels, modernization of political systems, and the protection of fundamental human rights, as well as, naturally, increases in productivity and income. Most importantly, Ma stresses that although China has unquestionable national strength, a country which fails to respect the basic human rights is still not having real power. To be a truly great nation, to have genuine national development, her people's basic rights must be protected by law. In the same vein, local radio host and commentator Ng Chisum asked a simple question: “can China really rise to be a great nation?” He said, “if you asked a passer-by on a street in China who Liu Xiaobo is, the most common response encountered is perhaps a puzzled face.” He aptly asked: “how a country which keeps her citizens ignorant at all costs can rise to be a ‘great nation’?” These comments remind us of this simple fact: China, while fast-paced in economy, is so backward in human rights and political system.
In this context, the Church has the responsibility of reflecting on her role in the modernization of China’s political system and human rights conditions. With her over 1.3 billion population, it is obvious that China is a place of huge spiritual needs. For the Church, it is tempting to remain silent on human rights issues in order to please the Chinese administration in exchange for gaining access into the huge religious “market.” With the example of Jesus’ preferential for the powerless and the oppressed, however, faithful Christian values must stand on the side of those persecuted and imprisoned for upholding conscience, such as Liu Xiaobo. In a comment regarding the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu, the Rev. Dr. Olav Fykse Tveit, World Council of Churches general secretary, remarked as follows: "I consider this recognition of Liu Xiaobo to be an affirmation and acknowledgement of growing respect for human dignity and freedom around the world……Christian faith respects the dignity of each person created in the image of God. Such core values are embodied in other religious traditions as well as in secular philosophies. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo is a strong message of support to all those around the world who are struggling for freedom, development and the dignity of all human beings." Obviously, the Church has indispensible responsibility in helping China learn to respect individual human dignity and freedom.
For a country with thousands years’ history of wars and chaos, however, a deep-seated sense of insecurity and fear of instability are understandable. What concerns Beijing most are social stability, smooth transitions of power, and steady economic growth. Bearing in mind these worries and concerns on the part of China, the Church has the responsibility to gently convey the message to Beijing that detaining political prisoners (often including lawyers and scholars) only do harm to the country, and that cautiously-paced implementations of democracy and human rights are good for the country, her citizens, her administration, her economy, and her political and social stability. In a word, a modern political system is good for China herself.
While China’s successful economic development model ought to be applauded, her political, legal, and human rights conditions remain to be matured to be qualified as a truly great nation. The Church has an important role to play in guiding the world’s next superpower on a path which is safe for her own citizens, for surrounding countries, and the world at large.