Nobel Peace Prize for Liu Xiaobo: a boost for democratic ideals in China

The timing was perfect for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. The Communist Party meets next week and Obama will be in Asia next month. The prize gives oomph to talk of political reform.

Perfect timing. The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to China’s leading democracy advocate, Liu Xiaobo – on the eve of events that could well shape the future of China as an emerging superpower:

Top Communist officials will gather in Beijing Oct. 15-18 for a party plenum that could result in crucial decisions on political reform and future leaders.

And in the next few weeks, President Obama and his top security officials will travel to Asia for critical summits that will help define China’s role in the world.

In giving the peace prize to China’s leading dissident – Mr. Liu is now serving an 11-year prison sentence – the Norwegian Nobel Committee provided a strong reminder: The world expects China to start acting as a responsible global leader. And that means embracing human rights and political freedoms, as many Asian nations have already done.

Liu stands as a potent symbol for those universal ideals in China. The former literature professor also strongly promoted the use of peaceful means for political change.

He first gained notice in 1989 after saving lives during the military crackdown on pro-democracy student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. But he really stirred China’s rice bowl in 2008 by organizing a movement around a 4,000-word document called “Charter 08.” For that act he was jailed.

The manifesto was modeled after “Charter 77,” a document issued in 1977 by intellectuals in Czechoslovakia asserting the principles of democracy for one of the Soviet-bloc countries then under communist rule. Such idealistic statements were crucial in bringing down the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union.

And it may be the same force of ideals that also eventually ends one-party rule in China.

“By departing from these [universal] values,” the Charter 08 document reads, “the Chinese government’s approach to ‘modernization’ has proven disastrous. It has stripped people of their rights, destroyed their dignity, and corrupted normal human intercourse.”

Such words do have influence on China’s internal debates. And they also echo in local revolts by peasants and workers, which have been on the rise.

Last week, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao made an unusual plea to Western countries not to demand reform of China, such as letting its currency rate float, an act that would hurt its export factories. “If China saw social and economic turbulence, then it would be a disaster for the world,” he warned.

In other words, Mr. Wen seemed to say, the world should be glad for the iron-fisted, one-party rule that stifles dissent and freedom in China.
Alas, even Wen may not believe that.

In August, he made these widely noted comments: “Without the guarantee of political system reform, the successes of restructuring the economic system will be lost and the goal of modernization cannot be realized.”

He also said in another forum that reform might lead to “a relaxed political environment, so people can better express their independent spirit and creativity.”

Such words almost sound like something from Charter 08 and other recent statements by Chinese liberals who say China’s rapid economic growth now requires democratization.

There is a ringer in all this. President Hu Jintao, China’s top leader, has been largely silent on political reform. And it remains unclear what his expected successor, Xi Jinping, really believes about political freedom.

This makes Western actions, such as the latest peace prize, so important to shaping change in China.

The United States, under Mr. Obama, must act to further Asia’s trend toward democratic rights, following the successful efforts of previous American presidents. That requires active engagement with democratic nations in the region and pushing free-trade agreements, such as the one pending with South Korea. Asia’s largest democracies, India and Indonesia, have lately acknowledged the critical leadership role that the US plays as a strategic partner in promoting pluralism and peace in Asia.

Any US withdrawal from that role would set back the work of democracy fighters like Liu. In fact, Obama can now use the awarding of this peace prize to demand Liu’s release during his meetings with Chinese leaders.

As last year’s winner of the award, Obama should know that ideals must be put into action.

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