By Awarding Liu Xiaobo the Peace Prize, the Nobel Committee Has Challenged a Dangerous Assumption

10/11/2010 11:51 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

PHOENIX - I heartily applaud the Nobel Committee for awarding its Peace Prize to the imprisoned Liu Xiaobo for his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China. In doing so, the committee has challenged the West to re-examine a dangerous notion that has become prevalent since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre: that economic development will inevitably lead to democracy in China.

Increasingly, throughout the late 1990s and into the new century, this argument gained sway. Some no doubt believed it; others perhaps found it convenient for their business interests. Many trusted the top Chinese policymakers who sought to persuade the outside world that if they continued pouring in their investments without an embarrassing "linkage" to human rights principles, all would get better at China's own pace.

More than 20 years have passed since Tiananmen. China has officially become the world's second-largest economy. Yet the hardly radical Liu Xiaobo and thousands of others rot in jail for merely demanding basic rights enshrined by the U.N. and taken for granted by all Western investors in their own countries. Apparently, human rights have not "inevitably" improved despite a soaring economy.

Liu Xiaobo's own experience over the last 20 years ought to be enough evidence on its own to finally demolish any idea that democracy will automatically emerge as a result of growing prosperity.

I knew Mr. Liu in the 1980s, when he was an outspoken young man. He took part in 1989 in the peaceful protests at Tiananmen Square and was sentenced to two years in prison for his efforts. From then until 1999, he was in and out of labor camps, prisons, detention centers and house arrest. In 2008, he initiated the "Charter 08" petition calling for China to comply with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Consequently, he was again arrested, this time sentenced to a particularly harsh 11 years in prison for "inciting subversion of state power" -- even though China is a signatory of the U.N. Declaration.

According to human rights organizations that monitor the situation in China, there are about 1,400 political, religious and "conscience" prisoners spread around in prisons or labor camps across China. Their "crimes" have included membership in underground political or religious groups, independent trade unions and non-governmental organizations, or they have been arrested for participating in strikes or demonstrations and have publicly expressed dissenting political opinions.

This undeniable reality ought to be a wake-up call to anyone who naively believes the autocratic rulers of China will alter their disregard of human rights just because the country is richer. Regardless of how widely China's leaders have opened its market to the outside world, they have not retreated even half a step from their repressive political creed.

On the contrary, China's dictators have become even more contemptuous of the value of universal human rights. Still under pressure in the decade after Tiananmen, the Communist government released 100 political prisoners in order to improve its image. Since 2000, as the Chinese economy grew stronger and stronger and the pressure from the international community became less and less, they have returned again to hard-line repression.

The international community should be especially concerned over China's breach of international agreements to which it is a signatory. Besides the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights, China also signed the U.N. Convention Against Torture in 1988. Yet, torture, maltreatment and psychiatric manipulation are extensively used in detention and prison camps in China. This includes beatings, the use of leg shackles and/or handcuffs for prolonged periods, extended solitary confinement, severely inadequate food, extreme exposure to cold and heat, and denial of medical treatment.

As the power of the regime grows with prosperity, the Communist Party feels confident in its immunity as it violates the strictures of its own constitution. Article 35 of China's constitution, for example, says that "citizens of the People's Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration." Yet, can anyone doubt government's crackdown on these rights, not to speak of regularly blocking the Internet, including denying access in a whole swath of China after the incidents between Han and Uighurs in western China? Censors can easily locate e-mails and their authors using sensitive words like "Liu Xiaobo" and filter them out.

As the unfortunate history of Japan during the first half of the 20th century illustrates, a power that marries economic strength and human rights violations is a threat to peace.
Thankfully, the courageous Nobel Committee has exposed this link once again in the case of a prospering China. The committee is absolutely right to make a connection between respect for human rights and world peace. As Alfred Nobel so well understood, human rights are the prerequisite for the "fraternity between nations."