During her visit to China this week, Aung San Suu Kyi has both an important opportunity and a compelling obligation. Because she embodies the triumph of a courageous individual in the face of oppression, she can remind China’s rulers that even dictators can sometimes find that a gesture of leniency and liberty is in their own interest.
Aung San Suu Kyi is uniquely positioned to do this. During her many years of house arrest in Burma, she received worldwide support, including the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize that helped to make her the world’s most famous prisoner of conscience. President Obama personally advocated for her release, as well as the release of other political prisoners, during the 2009 U.S.-ASEAN Summit. Such support enabled her to stand up to the leaders of the repressive junta ruling Burma and convinced them that it was in their interest to free her. Now, however, that support obliges Aung San Suu Kyi to speak out on behalf of another famous prisoner of conscience: her fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo.
Liu is serving an 11-year prison term for nothing more than co-authoring a call for democratic freedoms in China. When he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010 , the Chinese government would not allow him, or even his wife, to travel to Oslo to accept the award. He remains the world’s only Nobel Peace Prize winner who is languishing in a dictator’s dungeon.
Aung San Suu Kyi can make a powerful statement by urging Chinese President Xi Jinping to release Liu. By doing so, she can add her voice to those of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the late Czech leader Václav Havel, the Dalai Lama and countless other champions of freedom. More important, she can plausibly persuade Xi that such a gesture would strengthen, and not weaken, his legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese people.
As Aung San Suu Kyi herself has said, “It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it. . . . Yet even under the most crushing state machinery, courage rises up again and again, for fear is not the natural state of civilized man.”
While Xi claims to champion the rule of law, the Chinese people have seen how his fear of losing power has corrupted the rule of law. That has badly undermined his government’s legitimacy. Release of the Chinese government’s most prominent prisoner of conscience would be an important step toward strengthening its legitimacy, both for the Chinese people and in the eyes of the world.
Aung San Suu Kyi can hold herself out as an example of someone unjustly imprisoned because of a ruler’s fear but whose release paved the way for reconciliation within her nation and for its improved standing in the international community. She might not be fully successful, but she has a moral obligation to try. It would make her China trip complete.
Yang Jianli is founder and president of Initiatives for China. He was imprisoned in China from 2002 to 2007 for attempting to observe labor unrest.