As President Obama prepares to welcome China’s Communist party general secretary Hu Jintao to Washington for a state visit on January 19, it’s easy to get nostalgic about an earlier era in U.S.-China relations. Throughout the 1990s, there was at least the prospect that America would use the political capital of a summit meeting to force concessions on human rights. Less than two weeks after the state visit of General Secretary Jiang Zemin in 1997, for example, Wei Jingsheng, one of China’s most famous dissidents, was released from jail.
Before getting misty-eyed, however, we should remember that Wei was forced into exile, dissidents continued to be arrested, and the White House and Congress approved China’s Most Favored Nation trade status every year until it was finally made permanent. To this day, America avoids confrontation and refuses to impose consequences for egregious Chinese behavior at home and abroad. The idea that “engagement” with Beijing is the key to changing China has become the foundation of American policy. Nothing can shake it.
Until now. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a writer associated with the democracy manifesto Charter 08, demolishes what has been an article of faith—that there is no alternative to Communist party rule.
China’s Communist leaders lashed out at the Nobel Committee over Liu’s prize not because he and his fellow democrats are currently a threat—the party crushes them when necessary—but because recognizing people like Liu undermines the carefully cultivated image of a legitimate regime in full control of, and tacitly accepted by, its people. The party’s cooptation of intellectuals, artists, and businessmen is designed not only to neutralize potential political opposition, but also to deter expectations of change from abroad. Chinese people and media are greatly constrained in what they can say in public or tell an opinion pollster. Yet observers abroad often take self-censored views to represent the whole of Chinese popular opinion or, to paraphrase the title of a book on mostly state-approved thinkers, “what China thinks.”
Soviet authorities reacted with “intense irritation and some nervousness” when the dissident Andrei Sakharov won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975, Sakharov recalled in his memoirs. Like the Soviets, Chinese leaders fear international support for individuals who are brave and stubborn enough to work for a democratic alternative to the Communist party. Among other signatories of Charter 08 are Ding Zilin, the leader of the Tiananmen Mothers who seek accountability for the murder of demonstrators on the night of June 4, 1989; Zhang Zuhua, a former Communist cadre now working for democratic reform; Pu Zhiqiang, Mo Shaoping, and other lawyers; the scientist Jiang Qisheng; writers Wen Kejian and Wang Debang; law professor He Weifang; economist Mao Yushi; Cui Weiping, a film scholar and translator of Vaclav Havel into Chinese; and thousands of others.
President Obama did not meet with these or other dissidents on his visit to China. On January 13, he did meet at the White House with a group of experts and activists on China. But people who would have offended Chinese leaders—people like Harry Wu, the former prisoner of China’s laogai or forced labor camps; Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled Uighur leader; Ngawang Sandrol, a Tibetan nun jailed and tortured for her songs of praise for the Dalai Lama; Wang Juntao, a former Tiananmen protester; or Wan Yanhai, a famous AIDS activist and longtime associate of Liu Xiaobo—they were absent.
The president’s determination to avoid using the weight and prestige of his office to support democratic opponents of authoritarian regimes in China, Iran, Belarus, and elsewhere is quickly becoming a hallmark of his administration. It’s a dispiriting trend. And it suggests that the president simply does not grasp the meaning and potential of Liu Xiaobo and his fellow Chinese democrats.