Dissident Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize has scared China's communist elites. The Beijing government has responded viciously by vilifying Liu and the prize selection committee. China's cyber-sheriffs have tried to keep news of Liu's award off the Internet. Its secret police shadow Liu's wife. The People's Republic's foreign ministry has even snubbed Norwegian diplomats engaged in discussions about the fishing industry.
Beijing's full-throttle propaganda, political and police overreaction speaks volumes about the party elites' insecurity seeded by their failure to address China's array of internal challenges. The Communist Party's apparatchiks, state billionaires and military princes know the war for the terms of 21st century modernity rages within their country, and it is shaking the foundation of their sophisticated and slippery tyranny.
But first some background. Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo earned his Peace Prize. Since 1989 and the Tiananmen Square massacre, Liu has insistently demonstrated the physical and moral courage promoting genuine change demands. 2009's dubious prizewinner, U.S. President Barack Obama, rhetorically encouraged hope. When Liu says "no" to China's single party political system, he embodies hope and inspires by visceral example.
Liu long ago joined the distinguished line of brave men and women trapped in police states who choose, in the name of liberty, to confront their nations' authoritarian ideologies and instruments of terror. Many of these heroes die unheralded in a jail or an alley or a ditch. The tyrants erase their memory and hide their sacrifice.
A fortunate few, like Liu, gain international notoriety. Fame provides a degree of protection for the dissidents, and a Nobel Peace Prize adds political armor. The peace prize certainly empowered and protected Lech Walesa when as he and his Solidarity union struggled against Poland's communist government and its masters in Moscow.
A Peace Prize, however, does not guarantee freedom of travel or even release from police detention. The 1935 prizewinner, German pacifist and fervent anti-Nazi Carl von Ossietzky, died of tuberculosis in 1938 -- his hospital bed monitored by the Gestapo. Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi, the 1991 prizewinner, remains under arrest.
China is Myanmar's staunchest ally. A savage, impoverished dictatorship that brooks no dissent runs Myanmar. Cash-rich China is run by a silky smooth party dictatorship that stifles dissent.
The difference between savage poverty and silky wealth is significant, but the common point remains dictatorship. The Chinese government continues to portray Liu as a criminal and his prize as illicit interference in China's internal affairs. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu made that clear during a ministry press conference: "Giving the Nobel Peace Prize to a criminal serving a prison sentence," Ma said, "shows a lack of respect for China's judicial system."
Ma's propaganda line is supposed to stoke both neo-nationalist and paleo-imperial Chinese indignation. Peel its stinking onion back a layer, and Ma is damning the prize committee for handing China a "loss of face." Those scoundrels in Oslo failed to give China's communist emperors appropriate political and cultural deference. As a result, China's vice minister of agriculture canceled his meeting with Norway's fisheries minister. Take that, insouciant Scandinavians.
Touting Chinese courts as venues of justice is a reach. Economic corruption is the chief complaint among China's hundreds of millions of discontented citizens, but Beijing knows police and judicial corruption also riles the populace.
The Chinese government's heavy-handed reaction to Liu's prize provides an insight into China's great 21st century internal struggle. China's economic success is impressive, but it teeters on a very iffy political deal. China's privileged communist elites seek the benefits of economic liberalization (including free trade) without concomitant political liberalization. The blood of 2000 Chinese citizens slain at Tiananmen Square demonstrated the lengths the communists will go to enforce this bargain.
China's continued economic growth, however, requires modern technology and communications. The Internet is an essential economic tool, but one that frustrates an authoritarian government's ability to deny or control information. Over time, an informed population becomes an opinionated population, and dissident opinions endanger the communists' harsh bargain.
Ultimately, the communist government confronts the human spirit's will to freedom, with Liu as its courageous personification. No wonder the government is afraid.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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