Friday, October 15, 2010

A hard stone in the wilderness

October 14, 2010

Persecution can have strange effects. Over the past quarter-century, it has helped to turn Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese jailbird who is the new Nobel peace-prize laureate, into an optimist. In the 1980s he was known for his gloomy “nihilism”. Yet in a statement in December 2009, when he was sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment for “inciting sedition”, he was “full of optimistic expectations of freedom coming to China in the future”. With the Chinese government decrying his Nobel award as a “desecration” and intensifying repression to make its point, such hopefulness seems perverse. But Mr Liu, a worthy award-winner, may yet prove as prescient as he is heroic.

His “crime” was to have been closely involved in the drafting and circulation of Charter 08, a manifesto for political reform issued in December 2008 and since signed by several thousand Chinese citizens. Far from being a rallying-call for revolution, the charter is a moderate appeal for incremental reform—much of it in directions promised by China’s constitution. It demands freedom of expression, association and religion; guarantees of human rights and the protection of private property; the election of public officials; the abolition of the hukou system of residence permits that disadvantages those born in the countryside; and recognition that “freedom, equality and human rights are universal values of humankind”. That puts the charter, Mr Liu and now the Nobel committee at the heart of a crucial debate about China’s future.

It was not just the charter’s ideas that impelled the party to take vindictive revenge. It was, as the indictment made clear, the subsequent attempt to rally support for them via the internet. Ever since the Tiananmen protests of 1989, the Communist Party has been haunted by fears that the million mutinies it faces daily could again coalesce into a broad-based opposition movement.