11/19/2010 07:05 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

China, the Nobel Prize and the Road to Freedom

Twenty-five years ago, a group of officials from the Soviet Union traveled to Washington DC to discuss the prospects for nuclear arms reductions with the United States. After delivering their address, the first person to rise from the audience to ask a question was I.F. Stone, the legendary muckraking journalist. As he introduced himself, the Soviet officials politely praised the iconoclastic reporter for his critiques of Washington's Cold War policies since the 1950s.

The owlish-faced Stone swiftly stopped the fawning. "When are you going to free your political prisoners?" Stone bellowed. In a rising voice, he simply and plainly said: "Russia will never be a great power unless it allows journalists to write what they want and for intellectuals to be able to speak their mind!"

I thought about Stone's words at the Human Rights Watch awards dinner in San Francisco on Thursday night. The event honored Liu Xiaobo, who became the first Chinese to receive the Nobel Peace Prize last month. Liu is in prison serving an 11 year sentence for the spurious charge of "subversion," and his wife, Liu Xia, has been under house arrest since the award was announced.

The Chinese government labeled the Nobel committee's decision an "obscenity," and will not allow Xiaobo to travel to Oslo on December 10 to receive the prize. Nazi Germany was the last country to ban a recipient from receiving the award, when journalist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky was honored in 1936.

During Tiananmen, Liu was a university teacher who encouraged students to demand democracy and free speech. He was instrumental in brokering a deal with the Army that allowed the last protesters to leave the square safely after hundreds were slaughtered.

I had been preparing to travel to China later that summer to interview young people about social and political life in their country. The massacre forced me and my wife to travel instead to Eastern Europe to profile young activists hitting the streets to demand an end to the totalitarian regimes that ruled life in Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and the rest of the Soviet satellite states. Little did we or the rest of the world imagine that the seemingly unmovable communist states would crumble in the span of a few months later that fall.

Like the East European regimes, and apartheid in South Africa, the iron-grip on Chinese society will have to be released if China is to realize its potential as a truly great power this century. While a democratic evolution seems unlikely in the near-term, freedom will come to China sooner than expected, likely from a younger generation seeking basic human rights enjoyed across the globe.

Liu follows in the footsteps of Vaclav Havel and the small band of Czech dissidents who signed the Charter 77 statement calling for the restoration of human rights, Liu was a key author of the Charter 08 manifesto that was signed by ten thousand Chinese after it was posted on the internet before being swiftly pulled by Chinese censors. Liu was imprisoned the day after it appeared in December 2008. The document calls for new constitutional freedoms in China, demanding that

We should make freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and academic freedom universal, thereby guaranteeing that citizens can be informed and can exercise their right of political supervision. These freedoms should be upheld by a Press Law that abolishes political restrictions on the press. The provision in the current Criminal Law that refers to "the crime of incitement to subvert state power" must be abolished. We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.

Words as crimes. While the state of American politics is more than a tad depressing, imagine that a country which constitutes one-fifth of the planet's population still fears the words that roll from the tongue of a single citizen.

I wonder how fast an independent, civil society can grow in China. In the 1980s, East Europeans created -- especially in Poland -- an alternative underground society of schools, publishing houses, opposition circles that mushroomed and eventually helped to overcome state power. Of course, as in neighboring East Bloc countries, the citizen movements from below provided pressure and encouragement for reform-oriented communist leaders to chip away and eventually negotiate a peaceful end to stifling one-party rule.

The Nobel Prize committee is now considering a delay of the actual awarding of the Peace Prize medal to Liu in Oslo next month, since neither Liu nor his family are being allowed to leave China and accept the award.

Americans and the global community must keep its pressure weighing on Chinese officials to free Liu Xiaobo, just as international campaigning helped to force the Burmese military government to recently free fellow Nobel Prize recipient Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.

Entrenched and indignant Chinese officials must learn, hopefully much sooner than conceivable today, that engaged and thought provoking citizens like Liu Xiaobo are the very people who can make China a truly great and admired country in the open society age of free flowing ideas.

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