China, Liu Xiaobo and the New Reality of Human Rights

A picture of Liu Xiaobo inside the Nobel Peace Centre on the day of his Peace Prize ceremony, 10 December 2010. Photo: Getty Images.
A picture of Liu Xiaobo inside the Nobel Peace Centre on the day of his Peace Prize ceremony, 10 December 2010. Photo: Getty Images.

What does the Communist Party’s handling of the case of Liu Xiaobo tell us about its approach to dissidents and freedom of speech in the Xi era?

What it tells us is the party is tightening control much more than before. The Liu Xiaobo case shows that the party is not comfortable with people asking for the constitution of the People’s Republic of China to be enforced. Charter 08, for which Liu Xiaobo was jailed, ultimately amounts to asking for the rights of Chinese citizens, as articulated in the constitution, to be fully implemented. That resulted in Liu Xiaobo being incarcerated.

But what is really important isn’t so much that the party is tightening its control – that is happening anyway. What is more important is that the party is not that worried about how the Liu Xiaobo case affects international opinion.

If that’s the case, what lessons should countries looking to trade with China but concerned about human rights abuses take from Liu’s case?

We haven’t seen any major Western country come out to strongly and clearly hold the Chinese government to account over Liu Xiaobo’s human rights situation. A few leading governments have asked for Liu Xiaobo’s widow to be allowed to choose to stay or leave China. But so far there is no indication of any government backing that up with anything concrete.

That is very weak support for human rights in China. And it reflects a new reality: of the unwillingness of leading democracies to challenge the Chinese government on human rights matters, and the confidence on the part of the Chinese government to simply ignore what the rest of the world may think about it.

Given that there has been much discussion of China taking a larger global leadership role in the wake of an inward political turn in the US, what are the implications of Liu’s case for China’s global standing?

The implications are really small. There is a stronger expectation and desire to see China playing a global role because Donald Trump has damaged the standing of the United States as a global leader. It is not because of something that the Chinese government has done; it’s because of Trump.

That wider context hasn’t changed. So the Chinese government’s calculation is that the negative international reaction to Liu Xiaobo’s death will blow over in a matter of days – at worst, a couple of weeks – and then things will get back to normal.

There is no serious reason to believe that the Chinese government is wrong in their calculation. At the moment, the major Western countries are focusing on the economic relationship, and doing what they have to do pro forma about human rights issues in China. No major Western government is going to say that they are going to reconsider a major trade deal with China because of how Liu Xiaobo or his family has been treated. The Chinese government knows that and they act accordingly.

Moving on from the international reaction, how does Liu’s situation resonate within China?

Most Chinese don’t even know who Liu Xiaobo is. Within China, you cannot even search Liu Xiaobo’s name, or any permutation of Liu Xiaobo’s name, or the English initials of Liu Xiaobo. Anything potentially about or related to Liu Xiaobo is being censored.

Some things still get through; the ingenuity of a lot of bloggers is infinite. But most Chinese don’t even know what happened to Liu Xiaobo, or if they do, they mostly see him as a shill of the Western world trying to infiltrate and destabilize China.

If Western governments won’t engage China over human rights, what implications does that have for the global treatment of human rights as China becomes a bigger global player?

You can ‘engage’ in the sense of raising the issue with the Chinese authorities, as indeed the UK government and the German government have done, for example. But they haven’t actually taken any concrete steps.

The type of engagement where Western governments would get the Chinese government to demonstrate that something concrete was being done to improve the human rights situation – that era has gone. It is not going to come back in the foreseeable future. And therefore, the situation in terms of human rights in China will not be improving in the foreseeable future.

But what is more significant is how the Chinese government is asserting itself and dealing with domestic and international challenges, including on human rights issues. For many other countries around the world, China is showing an example for how to deal with the West. They don’t see it as being negative; they see it in positive terms.

There are still more countries in the world that abuse human rights than respect human rights. Most of those governments are pleased to see what the Chinese government has done in terms of how it handles the West.

Professor Steve Tsang, Associate Fellow, Asia Programme.

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