Ten months ago, when Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years for "inciting subversion of state power," the world response was muted. There were condemnations of this unashamed assault on free expression and individual freedom, but they were mild and oddly off-key.
The European Union, for example, issued a statement expressing its "deep concern" at the "disproportionate sentence" -- as if the problem were the length of the prison term rather than the fact of criminally sentencing a human rights advocate at all for the "crime" of advocating pluralistic government and individual freedom.
The U.S. Department of State described the sentence as "uncharacteristic of a great country" -- an odd choice of words. The State Department spokesman may have been suggesting that this is not the way "great countries" behave, in which case, note the obsequious effort to praise China. Or worse, it may have been a partial excuse for the Chinese bully boys, implying that this prison sentence was "uncharacteristic" of China.
But of course, the sentence was utterly characteristic of communist China, as were the Orwellian condemnations of Liu by the People's Daily, which "reported" that Liu was "spreading rumors and defaming ... the government ... aimed at subversion of the state and overthrowing the socialist system in recent years."
And so, when the Nobel Committee awarded Liu the Peace Prize this week, it was as if a jolt of caffeine had been administered to the lazy conscience of the world. President Obama, last year's spectacularly unworthy recipient of the prize, was roused from his self-admiration long enough to call upon China to release the "eloquent and courageous" Mr. Liu. Obama praised China's "dramatic progress in economic reform and improving the lives of its people, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty." But, he added, "this award reminds us that political reform has not kept pace, and that the basic human rights of every man, woman and child must be respected."
"U.S. officials" the AP explained, "try to strike a balance with China, pressing it on economic and human rights issues, while trying to win crucial Chinese support on the Iranian and North Korean nuclear standoffs, climate change and other difficult issues." Such is the administration spin in any case. In fact, while this administration has studiously avoided telling the truth about China's human rights record, China has been uncooperative on all of the issues listed, while at the same time manipulating its currency to the detriment of the U.S. economy.
It's not clear that the Obama administration has its head screwed on straight when it comes to human rights questions. Remember that the State Department, in its report to the United Nations on the U.S. human rights record, cited the Arizona immigration law as an example of our failure to set a good example to the world.
Yes, China has made great strides in economic development (entirely by permitting free markets to function, Obama might have added), but the Nobel Peace Prize reminds us that the way a nation treats its own citizens is usually a good predictor of the way it will behave internationally. The Obama administration's soft approach has done nothing to diminish China's crucial support for the most dangerous and unstable regimes in the world.
Chinese assistance against North Korea and Iran has proved illusory. Besides, the pathetic reality is that the Obama administration has no plans to be tough with Iran or North Korea, so Chinese cooperation is largely irrelevant. But in any case, the larger goal of U.S. foreign policy should always be to support and extend freedom. It is obviously in the interests of 1.3 billion Chinese that Liu Xiaobo and his Charter 08 organization succeed. (It is modeled on the Czech Charter 77 that successfully undermined the communist government there.)
When Liu was informed of the prize, he said, "This is for the lost souls of June 4," referring to the hundreds mowed down by the Chinese government in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
But it is ultimately in the interests of the United States that Liu succeed as well. If China were to throw off its oppressive regime, Chinese support for the criminal regimes in Tehran and Pyongyang, along with other crimes around the world, would almost certainly come to an end. The Nobel Committee has just sped that most desirable day.
As for last year's Nobel laureate, he is busy protecting us from the state of Arizona.