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Liu Xiaobo and the West's naive beliefs about freedom in China

Since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, the West has naively thought that economic prosperity would inevitably lead to democracy in China. The case of Liu Xiaobo, who just won the Nobel Peace Prize, shows it hasn't. Human rights are the prerequisite for the 'fraternity between nations.'

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I heartily applaud the Nobel Committee for awarding its Peace Prize to the imprisoned Liu Xiaobo for his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China. In doing so, the committee has challenged the West to re-examine a dangerous notion that has become prevalent since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre: that economic development will inevitably lead to democracy in China.

Increasingly, throughout the late 1990s and into the new century, this argument gained sway. Some no doubt believed it; others perhaps found it convenient for their business interests. Many trusted the top Chinese policymakers who sought to persuade the outside world that if they continued pouring in their investments without an embarrassing “linkage” to human rights principles, all would get better at China’s own pace.

More than 20 years have passed since Tiananmen. China has officially become the world’s second-largest economy. Yet the hardly radical Liu Xiaobo and thousands of others rot in jail for merely demanding basic rights enshrined by the UN and taken for granted by all Western investors in their own countries. Apparently, human rights have not “inevitably” improved despite a soaring economy.

Democracy will not automatically emerge

Liu Xiaobo’s own experience over the last 20 years ought to be enough evidence on its own to finally demolish any idea that democracy will automatically emerge as a result of growing prosperity.

I knew Mr. Liu in the 1980s, when he was an outspoken young man. He took part in 1989 in the peaceful protests at Tiananmen Square and was sentenced to two years in prison for his efforts. From then until 1999, he was in and out of labor camps, prisons, detention centers, and house arrest. In 2008, he initiated the “Charter 08” petition calling for China to comply with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Consequently, he was again arrested, this time sentenced to a particularly harsh 11 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” — even though China is a signatory of the UN Declaration.

According to human rights organizations that monitor the situation in China, there are about 1,400 political, religious, and “conscience” prisoners spread around in prisons or labor camps across China. Their “crimes” have included membership in underground political or religious groups, independent trade unions and non-governmental organizations, or they have been arrested for participating in strikes or demonstrations and have publicly expressed dissenting political opinions.


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