As someone who has seen firsthand China’s progress over the last two decades, I have been deeply disappointed in Beijing’s treatment of Liu Xiaobo since he won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.
The China I live in is one that has increased personal freedom and accepts greater public discourse than ever before. Yet the face that China presents to the outside world does not resemble the modern and dynamic society that it is working to become.
Many of my American friends do not realize that today Chinese people are allowed to express themselves, publicly and privately, in ways unheard of 20 years ago. While clear restrictions remain, Chinese citizens can now vent online, protest in public, appeal to government for redress, and litigate in court. The vast majority of China’s people live, work, migrate, vacation and entertain themselves relatively unfettered. This is a dramatic transformation.
Yet the government’s overriding concern for social stability has too often been the sole priority. When China took a hard line on Liu Xiaobo following the Nobel Committee’s decision, it obscured from international view real areas of progress. For example, public debate on the Internet has been a major breakthrough in China, even if it falls short of American or European openness. Control remains heavy handed on topics deemed “sensitive.” One result is that far more people outside of China know about the country’s Nobel Prize winner than in his home country.
Despite these tight controls, there are green shoots of further political reform. Recently, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao talked publicly about the introduction and improvement of democratic principles in governmental institutions, and the enforcement of laws governing respect for human rights and civil liberties.
These pronouncements have raised both hope and skepticism. If talk of reform is sincere, there is still much work ahead for the Chinese leadership to demonstrate full respect for a diversity of views. The leadership has yet to get comfortable with the understanding that robust debate, even when uncomfortable, is a healthy component of a dynamic and durable civil society.
Clearly, insecurity remains about discussions of political reform, no matter how tepid they may be.
There is an irony that China continues to demonstrate self-doubt about its own domestic political control at a time of American hand-wringing over China’s relative strength.
Even as China has come out of the financial crisis stronger than ever, Beijing’s leaders remain vigilant about any perceived dissent by people like Liu Xiaobo.
If China still needs to learn how to become comfortable with dissent, conversely, American and European leaders should understand that stridency with Beijing can backfire. Chinese nationalistic factions frequently use Western criticism to attack the moderate voices that drive economic and political reform. For example, voices in China calling for currency appreciation to ease inflation were drowned out this fall by hard-liners who argued that Beijing could not yield to U.S. pressure. The backlash problem is amplified on the sensitive issue of political reform.
Nonetheless, there are actions the West can take to support China’s peaceful democratic transition.
First, Western leaders should appreciate that open and frequent government-to-government dialogue and legal, cultural and commercial exchanges are the most effective tools. China came out of its shell three decades ago due to vigorous engagement with, not lectures from, Washington and Brussels.
Second, we should give Beijing credit where credit is due. Those that deserve credit are the moderate voices that have taken bold steps to lead China down a path of reform. Unfortunately, few elected officials in the United States would even consider giving the Communist leadership praise for its accomplishments. Acknowledging progress on problems like poverty helps build credibility on more contentious issues.
Third, it is important to keep in mind the internal struggle between moderate and conservative voices within China. The Chinese people continue to view with suspicion any attempt to impose Western values on China. Liberal institutions need to be nurtured, rather than thrust upon Beijing. Keeping this tension in mind serves as a framework for productive engagement.
There is an established historical pattern for real change in China. Over the past 30 years, change has come slowly but steadily.
Political reform is coming to China and Western politicians should avoid prolonging the process through strident remarks and posturing that only give ammunition to Chinese hard-liners. Instead, we should encourage Beijing as it becomes more comfortable with its place as a modern, and increasingly open, power.
James Zimmerman, a lawyer and former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China and the author of a guidebook for lawyers and businessmen working in China.