Today's date:
Spring 2010

Liu Xiaobo and China’s Humiliation of Obama

Wei Jingsheng, one of China’s best known human rights activists, spent 15 years in jail until he was deported to the United States. He is the recipient of the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Human Rights and the Olaf Palme Prize.

Washington—In December, a moderate reformist in China, Liu Xiaobo, was sentenced to 11 years in prison by the Chinese government for the mere act of organizing and signing a petition, Charter 08, calling for political reform and the basic human rights much of the world already enjoys.

The message was clear for all those who sought restraint from a newly powerful China that now sits prominently at the tables of global governance: Since you made a fuss about releasing Liu after his arrest, we will punish him even more severely. In no uncertain terms, that will let you know that not only don’t we care what you think but also we don’t have to.

We Chinese are intimately acquainted with this authoritarian arrogance.

During the eras of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, when I was jailed for 15 years for the “heinous crime” of putting up a wall poster, the Chinese government regarded international public opinion with this same attitude. If the Chinese people saw how the government blithely dismissed the concerns of powerful foreigners, the Communist Party rulers reasoned, they would also see they had no alternative but to submit to the overbearing authority of the government.

During Jiang Zemin’s time, there were some changes. In an effort to reduce international pressure and develop the economy under favorable trade conditions from the United States, the Chinese regime yielded. Among other actions, I was released from jail and deported to the US. That resulted in a strong backlash from the hardliners inside of the party despite the fact that, over the years, America’s huge trade deficit is what largely fueled China’s rapid growth.

Now that China’s leaders believe their prospering nation has emerged as a player in world history just as America’s prestige has been weakened by the Iraq War and the recent financial meltdown, the hardliners have been able to wrest the upper hand once again.

No doubt there is some truth in the notion that China’s revived arrogance is inspired by its role as indebted America’s largest creditor. Surely this is one reason China’s leaders feel free to insult President Barack Obama, as they did during his visit to China, when they blocked broad news coverage of his public speech, and when they sent lower-level officials to negotiate with him at the Copenhagen climate talks until the last minute when Premier Wen Jiabao finally granted him an audience.

Their humiliation of Obama was not personal. It served to mark China’s power on the world stage. But more importantly, as under Mao and Deng, standing up to the American superpower is meant to stem growing internal opposition and cow China’s restless people into subservience under a one-party dictatorship. This is particularly critical as greater democracy in China would expose its own economic problems.

How President Obama responds to this challenge is not just a matter of his own honor and position; it is a matter of defending the democratic value system of the West against a challenge for ideological leadership in the 21st century.

The case of Liu Xiaobo presents an opportunity for President Obama to save face and stand up to the hardliner’s untoward arrogance. If the US doesn’t push back, the hardliners will push on with negative consequences across the whole spectrum of issues, from trade and currency valuations to global security and climate change.

The US may owe a great deal of debt to China, but it owes a greater debt to its founding principles of freedom and human rights. If the West, led by the US, does not counterbalance China’s new might in the world order, who will?