ABeijing court last week convicted activist Liu Xiaobo of subversion and sentenced him to 11 years in prison for advocating freedom, democracy and rule of law. This week, the Chinese government executed Briton Akmal Shaikh for heroin trafficking, despite a plea for clemency by the British government on grounds that he was mentally ill. The two cases are unrelated, except insofar as they illustrate China’s immunity to international appeals to respect human rights. And yet, even as the country’s growing economic and political clout has made it more confident in global affairs, it has become no less fearful of challenges from within. Rising China is no more willing to brook dissent these days than its smaller neighbor, Vietnam, which is putting pro-democracy activists on trial, or than the Islamic government of Iran, which has been confronting street demonstrations for months.
In the last two years, the Chinese government has cracked down on Internet sites, lawyers, consumer advocates and human rights activists, particularly after the collapse of poorly constructed schools in the Sichuan earthquake and the tainted milk scandal in 2008. Liu is a brave democracy advocate and no stranger to jail; he was sent to prison for 21 months after the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, and to a labor camp in 1996 after demanding clemency for others still imprisoned. This time, the government seized on his pro-democracy articles published on foreign websites and his role in coauthoring Charter 08, a manifesto for political reforms. The document, signed by 300 Chinese intellectuals and activists when it was published on Dec. 10, 2008, calls for expanded freedoms of religion, assembly and speech. “We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes,” it says. It also calls for a new constitution ensuring an independent judiciary, direct election of local and national officials based on “one person, one vote,” and respect for human rights.
The Chinese government’s unfortunate response was summed up in a speech by the vice minister of public security, published Monday, in which he lashed out at “hostile forces stirring up chaos” and advocated “preemptive attacks” against challenges to Communist Party control. The government is wrong to jail Liu for his beliefs. It is wrong to brand Liu a subversive, when he is a peaceful dissident advocating peaceful change, not the overthrow of the government. But perhaps it is right about one thing: The ideals that Liu espouses so effectively do pose a threat to the Communist Party’s monopoly on power. Freedom and democracy are subversive, and cannot be locked away forever.