china + dissident + nobel peace prize = reform?

The day that a nation’s citizen is bestowed the honour of being named recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize would be the day in which that country revels in nationalistic pride. This principle seems to apply to every nation but China. Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) was given that honour on 8 October 2010, for his struggle in trying to attain fundamental human rights in China. He joins illustrious laureate company including Barack Obama (2009), Kim Dae Jung (2000), Aung San Syu Kyi (1994), Dalai Lama (1989) and Martin Luther King (1964).

Charter 08 (零八憲章)

Charter 08 (零八憲章)

Liu obtained the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in trying to attain fundamental human rights in China. He is currently imprisoned for his participation in the writing of Charter 08, a manifesto/charter to promote political reform and the democratisation of China. Initially signed by 350 activists and intellectuals, it now has over 11,000 signatories. Its preamble establishes the context that has produced the totalitarian system that is in place today. There is a sense of resentment that after initial political progress in the late 1930s, the civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists caused it to abruptly come to an end.

The Charter has 19 fundamental positions including judicial independence, separation of powers, election of public officials, and so on. These elements are fundamental to a transparent and accountable institutional process. Also included are several rights based privileges including the freedom of religion, expression, association and assembly, and the enshrining of human rights. The most fundamental of these positions is that of legislative democracy.

Read the full text in English or in Simplified Chinese.

The trouble with China is…

Not surprisingly, China has taken offence to the bestowing of this prize to a Chinese criminal, calling it “obscene”. In a closed society like China, it is questionable whether Liu himself knows that he has been awarded this prize, let alone the other 1.3 billion people living in China. It is just as unlikely for the people of China to even know of Liu and countless other dissidents, and their efforts in trying to attain basic human rights freedoms for them.

The first problem: ignorance is bliss. In a state-controlled society like China, people do not know of a lifestyle any different to the one they are living now. How could one struggle for a greater ideal if they know no better? With an increasing number of Chinese people going abroad for travel, business and education, people now have the opportunity to see a way of life different to their own. Maybe they may be inspired to bring home some western ideals to China? I do not believe this is practically possible. Rather, I believe that these overseas travellers are gaining valuable insight by expanding their horizons and gaining greater knowledge and experiences. With greater experiences and information, they are able to make a better determination of the choices available. These people are able to judge and make their own assessments and will be the key to any domestic change. As much as this sounds promising, the amount of travelling Chinese is only restricted to those with sufficient money to realise this. In actuality, this is but a very small percentage of the Chinese population. As well, on the contrary, they may make an assessment that chooses to side with the current system. The strength of nationalistic pride in China is beyond comprehension and is a testament to the strength of the propaganda.

There is another most fundamental problem: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I believe that many Chinese people think that the current system is fine and there is no need to effect change. This relates to the matter discussed above. No matter if one lives in the city or in the country, is rich or poor, as long as the central government is perceived to be able to provide its people a job, a place to live, food to eat, and a sense of security, that should be sufficient to keep its people satisfied. A happy population is a unified population.

All the great political reforms of this world happen where there are unhappy, disgruntled people with a vision for change. As long as China is able to satisfy its people, or at least appear to satisfy them, it averts any possible problems. With a state based media that can be used to censor outside influences and control the reporting of internal matters, portraying a Utopian society is not difficult at all. Everything negative can be made positive, and vice versa. Remember the earthquakes and extreme flooding of the recent past? Remember seeing the People’s Liberation Army in its millions rush to assist with the President and Premier standing watch. These pictures inject the right dose of nationalistic pride, central government strength and reassurance required to generate and reinforce the nation’s unity. The nationalist spirit is always behind each message whether it is in times of happiness or despair to maintain this unity. As the saying goes, stability is achieved through unity.

It is difficult to destabilise this equilibrium. The U.S.S.R. crumbled because it undertook reforms that liberalised the economy, resulting in a reduction in the central government’s control and an increase in the people’s power. China has learnt from this important lesson in surrendering centralised power. As the world’s second largest economy, and possessing the largest domestic economy of any country, China is also protected threats of economic sanctions used by the international community. It has only been approximately 20 years since modernisation, but who would have guessed at the time the position and power China now commands on a global scale. With its enviable economy, the international community with the United States included, is now so dependent on the Chinese economy they now have no bargaining power to call for any change. The world economy is now in China’s hands.

After writing this post, it has become apparent to me that the awarding of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize serves not only to draw people’s attention to the plight of these dissidents, but to illustrate to the world and open up for discussion, the size, strength and the formidable nature of the foe that they are against. I believe that the democratisation of China will not solve all of its problems. Despite this, I believe that people should be given a right to choose how they want to live their lives, and the government’s role is to support the provision of these choices rather than to restrict them.


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