The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo on October 8 is a huge problem for China’s leaders. It undermines their efforts to portray the Chinese Communist party as the legitimate representative of China’s people. And for that very reason, Liu’s prize is an enormous boon to the people of China—and to the cause of democracy in general.
In December 2009, the 54-year-old Liu was convicted of subversion and sentenced to 11 years in jail. Although the verdict cited many of his writings, the reason authorities moved against him when they did was his association with Charter 08. Published in late 2008, this document is a citizen’s manifesto that calls for a constitutional democracy in China based on the rule of law. Its authors were inspired by the efforts of the Czechoslovak activists and intellectuals who, under Communism, launched Charter 77. That document contributed to the downfall of Communism in Czechoslovakia and in the broader Soviet Empire. Vaclav Havel, a founder of Charter 77 who went on to become president of the democratic Czech Republic, has returned the compliment by becoming a staunch advocate for Liu and his fellow Chinese “Chartists.”
Liu has written that he believes China will become democratic. This is what Chinese Communist leaders fear. This is why Liu Xiaobo sits in jail. Although he is not the leading force behind Charter 08, Liu was among its most prominent signatories. Arresting him was a signal to others that the Communist authorities, while allowing greater latitude in many areas of life, cannot abide any challenge to the party’s monopoly on power.
Liu’s prize complicates the party’s designs. It is a global recognition that there is an alternative to Communist rule. This matters not only to China’s people, but also to the rest of the world—including the United States, which has come to accept, and sometimes even embrace, China’s brand of authoritarianism. For some time, the guiding idea behind America’s approach to Communist China has been that its economic development, spurred by trade and investment, “inevitably” would lead to liberalization and democracy.
This hasn’t happened, of course. But the idea has nonetheless excused successive American administrations from including democratic advocacy in their dealings with Beijing. In the meantime, the Chinese Communist party has refined its methods of control, benefitted from its wealth and Western technologies, and become more sophisticated—and emboldened—in its dealings with foreign powers.
Glimpses of the party’s true nature still show through, however. China’s leaders are on a clumsy streak lately, most recently in their response to Japan’s arrest of a Chinese ship captain after a collision in disputed waters. Similarly, Beijing’s official reaction to Liu’s Nobel Prize was to denounce it as an “obscenity,” and tar the principled, humane recipient as a “criminal.”
It’s self-evident that a democratic China would be infinitely preferable to the status quo, for China’s people and for the world. Democracy is not inevitable. But Charter 08 shows that democracy is possible—so long as patriots like Liu Xiaobo are free to work for the cause of human liberty, and so long as they find support from free people and democratic governments around the world.