The award of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2010 to jailed Chinese dissident and pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo last week expectedly outraged the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the government. Beijing decried the award saying Liu was a criminal according to Chinese laws and the Nobel Committee had done exactly what it should not have. China again warned this may hurt relations with Norway. The Nobel Committee, in its presentation citation, clarified that human rights was closely connected to peace. The award had not diverted from its known parameters in giving the peace award to Liu Xiaobo. The Tibetan religious leader the Dalai Lama was also awarded the Nobel Peace prize for his peaceful struggle in exile to save the religion, history and cultural heritage of the Tibetan people from extinction at the hands of the CCP and the Chinese government.
China did not sit by and allowed the award to Liu Xiaobo to go through. A senior official visited Norway last month and warned both the Norwegian government and the Nobel Committee that there could be severe consequences if Liu was awarded the prize. Beijing was well aware that the Nobel Committee is an independent body, but still hoped the Norwegian government would intervene. They miscalculated that countries in the West especially in Europe are leading proponents of human rights and democracy, and they practise what they preach. China has come under further pressure with US President Barack Obama calling on Beijing to set Liu free. The award was also welcomed by former architect of Czechoslovakia’s democracy movement, Vaclav, Havel, and by Nelson Mandela. These voices are certain to grow sooner rather than later.
Democracy, human rights, political reform and transparency of the government as well as social stability are among the hot topics of discussion in China. Minorities remain the worst sufferers under the Chinese system. The minorities, especially the Buddhist Tibetans and Muslim Uighurs in Xinjiang who are striving for autonomy within the Chinese constitution, are looked upon by the state as separatists. The Chinese leadership’s diffidence to act positively is further alienating these minorities.
The typical use of the hammer to kill a fly is the only instrument that Beijing can think of using. Last year’s Uighur revolt in Urumqi, capital of Xnjiang was a sign of great resentment of Uighurs against sinicization of their land. The Chinese actions have thrown up an unlikely hero, Ms. Rebiya Kadeer, a businesswoman who was forced to leave China. She is now the most prominent Uighur leader in exile, advocating peaceful resistance. The Chinese propaganda continues to demonize her much in the way they attack the Dalai Lama. It should not surprise anyone, least of all the Chinese, if Ms. Kadeer is also awarded the Peace Prize in time to come.
It is difficult to say how concerned the Chinese leadership is that there has been a quiet shift of attitude and thinking among the younger to middle-aged group of Han Chinese intellectuals. An NGO, the Gongmen Law Research Center in Beijing prepared a paper on Tibet in 2008. A group of lawyers and researchers of this center went down to the remotest regions in Tibet. Their conclusion was that the money and development work the government was expending in Tibet to win the hearts and minds of Tibetans rarely reached the target, and the beneficiaries were the Han settlers in Tibet. The government promptly closed down this NGO.
Many Han Chinese including in the military are beginning to question the rationality of clinging on to Tibet and Xinjiang in this manner. And religion (Tibetan Buddhism) is also beginning to creep into the society including, again, among the military.
The state’s iron grip on the minorities cannot be isolated from the restrictions on political freedom imposed by CCP and state on the people of the country. A possible symbolic relationship growing between the minorities and the pro-democracy activists cannot be ruled out. In fact, there is a great possibility of such a thing happening.
Young Chinese students abroad, especially in the USA have been seen attending some of Dalai Lama’s lectures. They did not come to disturb the talks, but to understand the Dalai Lama’s philosophy.
Although the Chinese authorities closed down the BBC and CNN broadcast of Liu Xiaobo’s award, the authorities can hardly keep such news blocked out in a country with over 4.2 billion internet users. Very interestingly, a number of intellectuals approached by foreign media for comments welcomed the award openly, without concealing their identities. Is there a change in the political wind in China, howsoever small it may be?
Liu Xiaobo was a leader of the 1989 students’ demonstration for democracy. Later he had some doubts about the methodology. But he reverted to his pet agenda – democracy. He authored the Charter-08 (in 2008) outlining a programme for establishing democracy. He had supporters even among veterans. But he was charged with conspiracy against the state and last year, jailed for eleven years.
Liu Xiaobao’s is not the only case. There are many other pro-democracy activities who have been jailed; there is a group “Tiananmen Square Mothers” who have been campaigning for answers to the disappearance of their sons who participated in the 1989 demonstrations; intellectuals and media persons were assured freedom of expression, but actually they were shifted; to top everything, some veteran party leaders were Deng Xiaoping’s comrades in arms promoting political structural reform.
The Chinese Communist Party starting from the theorists to the Central Committee to Politburo to the Politburo Standing Committee cannot remain immune to these developments and voices. Political reforms were partially suspended following the Tiananmen Square uprising, and were almost halted after Deng’s death in 1977. Under President and CPC General Secretary Hu Jintao’s regimes from 2004 political reforms was reversed and extreme nationalism bordering on jingoism, and demanding assertiveness in foreign policy and territorial issues became China’s hallmark.
Although the Politburo and its Standing Committee are supposed to take decisions based on consensus, that does not eschew serious political and ideological difference. Typically, such differences come out in the open starting with innuendos to serious articulations. This happens usually in the run up to very important political events. The 18th Central Committee of the CCP will take place in 2012 when a new leadership will come up. Top leaders use this time to ensure that their political and ideological views are passed on to their successors, especially by their coteries/factions who will come into power.
It appears that in Premier Wen Jiabao a new political faction is coming up in China. Wen does not belong to any of the established factions like the Communist Youth League (CYL) Hu Jintao’s constituency, the Shanghai clique of former Party Chief Jiang Zemin, or the upcoming group of Princelings (progenies and near relatives of former top level leaders). He comes from a non-descript background of educated party cadres who have come up through hard work, discipline and dedication. This group appears to be committed to Deng Xiaoping’s policy of economic development supported by political reform, though very gradually.
Wen Jiabao appears to have fired the first salvo to kick-start political reform. Speaking in China’s first Economic Free Zone, Shenzhen, last month Wen said that economic development cannot survive without political reforms.
Shenzen, which was once a fishing village near Hong Kong, is the sign post for China’s economic surge. Faced with strong opposition to his liberalization policy in Beijing, Deng Xiaopng went quietly to Shenzen and gave a speech challenging the conservatives and lending his shoulder to economic liberalization. His speech was first reported in Hong Kong and then gradually reported in the mainland. From then on, China’s economic surge has not looked back, though political liberalization has reversed, setting a possible ticking time bomb.
During his tour to New York to attend the UN General Assembly annual session, Wen Jiabao elaborated his political reform thought to a group of overseas Chinese media CEOs, and finally gave an interview to CNN’s Farid Zakaria which exposed the deep divide in China on political reform.
Wen’s interview with Farid Zakaria can be considered momentous, and its impact can create another evolution if not revolution, in China.
Wen Jiabao took care to speak for himself and not the CCP. He said that freedom of speech was indispensable for any country which is in the course of development is necessary and to make the country strong. He obliquely admitted that with more than 400 million internet users the people could not be kept in the dark. While saying that it was important to create conditions for people to criticize their government, he also said that freedom must be conditioned within the parameters of the constitution, and freedom of speech was incorporated in the Chinese constitution.
The central point of Wen Jiabao’s long interview was that although freedom of speech was guaranteed by the constitution, this very clause was being suffocated by the party and the government. Wen saw the frustrations in the society, and rising challenges to the CCP. He advocated that the party acknowledge this development and create conditions to let the steam out before it explodes.
Wen Jiabao could not speak so openly in Beijing. To bring in a gradual impact Chinese leaders usually use a foreign sounding board. Deng’s speech came through Hong Kong when Hong Kong was not a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China. Wen used Shenzen first to prove he was following the philosophy of Deng Xiaoping, but then went west to make his views a subject of international discussions which will seep into China.
Hu Jintao followed up with a visit to Shenzen after Wen to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Shenzen being created a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). But Hu did not go beyond the “Three Represents” theory crafted under Jiang Zemin to include experts without party affiliations for development, and his on scientific development theory. He did not touch upon political reform in any serious sense.
The divide at the top level of the CCP has become obvious, though some China analysts say they cannot discern any differences within the party.
The entire internal political environment in China is getting not only convoluted, but showing signs of a sharp divide. The authorities put Liu Xiaobo’s wife under house arrest to prevent her from talking to the international media. The official media has been tuned to lambast the award to Liu. But the Liu Xiaobo effect is here to stay which will ultimately embrace China’s tortured minorities.
Liu Xiaobo has dedicated his Nobel award to the “Tiananmen Souls”-those young men and women who lost their lives in 1989 for simply asking for their natural rights. Premier Wen Jiabao recently rehabilitated late General Secretary Hu Yaobang in his book on this leader whose political beliefs, and death in May 1989 catalysed the Tiananmen uprising. Premier Wen has ignited a new political thought that was simmering. Liu Xiaobo resembles the continuity from 1989, and may have become the flag bear of a new democratic revolution in China’s history. The road forward may be difficult, but very possible.
(The writer, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst based in New DelhiEmail:email@example.com)