President Barack Obama’s meek visit to China last month confirmed that the United States is taking a much more conciliatory approach toward a seemingly more confident Beijing in a bid to secure bilateral cooperation on a range of global issues. But the Communist Party’s decision to sentence Liu Xiaobo to jail on Christmas Day, while barring Western diplomats from entering the courtroom, is revealing because it shows not confidence and strength, but insecurity and vulnerability.
Mr. Liu is no ordinary dissident: He was one of the main authors of Charter 08, a human-rights manifesto modeled on the Charter 77 document that inspired Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe. Charter 08 called for a new Chinese constitution, freedom of speech and assembly, an independent judiciary and democratic elections for all levels of government. Arrested in June, Mr. Liu’s plight was followed not only by Western journalists, but importantly, by prominent U.S. politicians, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The date of Mr. Liu’s conviction was a crude attempt to bury the news while Western leaders and journalists were on holiday and the public was distracted by seasonal festivities. This technique isn’t particular to China, but Beijing took the tactic a step further, publicly warning that any international criticism of its treatment of Mr. Liu would be a gross violation of its national sovereignty.
Mr. Liu’s conviction has been closely watched by domestic and international audiences precisely because Charter 08 refuted the Communist Party’s central argument that the slow pace of reforms was preferable and supported by the Chinese people. Party officials continually tell their Western counterparts that they are already working toward many of the principles outlined in the Charter, but in a “steady” and “orderly” fashion. They claim China is still in an early stage of development and now isn’t the correct time to implement such changes.
When the Charter was released in late 2008, Beijing thus watched warily as copies spread to Internet sites within China, with English-language translations available to international audiences. The Charter links fair and sustainable economic progress with civil, judicial and political reform. It insists these reforms are needed now rather than at some future, indeterminate time. Critically, the document was written and endorsed by leading Chinese intellectuals, citizens and even some officials currently in power and not pushed onto China by Western intellectuals.
Indeed, Mr. Liu’s Christmas Day trial came only four days after the state-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released its annual Social Blue Book, which highlighted growing social unrest and the worsening problems associated with inequality and corruption. The report called into question the success of Beijing’s long-stated plan to build a “harmonious society” and lent support to arguments put forward by Charter 08. Significantly, without specifying any new figure, the report also stressed that reported incidents of mass social unrest had increased. (According to the Ministry of Public Security, there were 87,000 reported instances of “mass unrest” in 2005 and an estimated but unconfirmed 100,000 such events in 2007.) There is also widespread, growing and profound public dissatisfaction with the performance of government officials.
Until now, the Obama administration and other governments broke rank with previous administrations and backed away from publicly pressuring China on its human-rights and political reform commitments in exchange for Beijing’s cooperation on issues such as North Korea, Iran and climate change. They have received little in return; Beijing’s intransigence at the Copenhagen Summit is only the latest show of defiance.
Yet as Charter 08 notes, authoritarianism is in general decline throughout the world, and citizens ought to be able to elect their leaders. Beijing felt more comfortable when the world no longer seemed to care how it governed its people. But there is a growing awareness within China that the Party’s apparent confidence and moral assuredness is a façade. By imprisoning Mr. Liu, China has given new life to Charter 08. Now is the moment for the U.S. and other nations to pressure China to make better progress on the kind of reforms that Mr. Liu and millions of other Chinese citizens wantand deserve.