Edited extracts from The Economist, July 15, 2017, with commentary by Andrew L. Urban.
Liu Xiaobo, who died on July 13, was hardly a household name in the West. Yet of those in China who have called for democracy, resisting the Communist Party’s ruthless efforts to prevent it from ever taking hold, Liu’s name stands out.
Liu died in a hospital bed in northeastern China from liver cancer. The suffering endured by him, his family and friends was compounded by his miserable circumstances. Liu, an academic and author specialising in literature and philosophy, was eight years into an 11-year sentence for subversion.
The government refused his and his family’s requests that he be allowed to seek treatment abroad. It posted guards around his ward, deployed its army of internet censors to rub out any expression of sympathy for him, and ordered his family to be silent. The Communist Party wants the world to forget Liu and what he stood for. There is a danger that it will.
In the 1980s, as China began to open to the outside world, Western leaders were so eager to win its support in their struggle against the Soviet Union that they made little fuss about China’s political prisoners. Why upset the reform-minded Deng Xiaoping by harping on about people such as Wei Jingsheng, then serving a 15-year term for his role in the Democracy Wall movement, which had seen protests spread across China and which Deng had crushed in 1979?
The attitudes of Western leaders changed in 1989 when Deng suppressed the Tiananmen unrest, resulting in hundreds of deaths. Suddenly it was fashionable to complain about jailing dissidents (it helped that China seemed less important when the Soviet Union was crumbling).
From time to time the government would release someone in the hope of rehabilitating itself in the eyes of the world. Western leaders were grateful. They wanted to show their own people, still outraged by the slaughter in Beijing, that censure was working.
Earlier this month leaders of the G20 group of countries, including China’s President Xi Jinping, gathered in Germany for an annual meeting. There was not a peep from any of them about Liu, whose terminal illness had just been made known.
Why complain? China retaliates against countries that criticise its human-rights record. It restored relations with Norway only last year, having curtailed them after Oslo had hosted the Nobel ceremony in 2010 at which Liu got his prize. (As China would not free him, he was represented by an empty chair.)
Yet there are good reasons Western leaders should speak out loudly for China’s dissidents all the same. For one thing, it is easy to exaggerate China’s ability to retaliate — especially if the West acts as one. The Chinese economy depends on trade. Even for little Norway, the economic impact of the spat was limited. For another, speaking out challenges Xi in his belief that jailing peaceful dissenters is normal. Silence only encourages him to lock up yet more activists.
And remember, for those who risk everything in pursuit of democracy, the knowledge that they have Western support is a huge boost even if it will not secure their release or better their lot.
A vital principle is at stake, too. In recent years there has been much debate in China about whether values are universal or culturally specific. Keeping quiet about Liu signalled that the West tacitly agreed with Xi — that there were no overarching values and the West thus had no right to comment on China’s or how they were applied. This message not only undermines the cause of liberals in China, it also helps Xi cover up a flaw in his argument. China, like Western countries, is a signatory to the UN’s Universal Declaration, which says: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” If the West is too selfish and cynical to put any store by universal values when they are flouted in China, it risks eroding them across the world and, ultimately, at home too.
The West should have spoken up for Liu.
Comment by Andrew L. Urban:
The West should have done far more than spoken up for Liu. And for all dissidents in China who are persecuted. The West has been slipping down the slope of silent complicity in China’s undemocratic Communist totalitarianism. Like moral whores, Western democracies sell their goods to China and doing so, turn a blind eye to the Chinese Communist Party’s utter disregard for human rights. Selective morality is no morality at all.
But at the very least, the West should have spoken up for him – loud and often while he languished in jail, and latterly in hospital.