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Giving Hope to China's Activists

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Around this time last year, I wrote an article saying peace would have been better served had the Nobel peace prize gone to a Chinese activist instead of President Obama and urged him to live up to his prize during his trip to China. I wrote as the son of an imprisoned activist -- my father, Wang Bingzhang, is serving a life sentence in China for his political activities.

As Liu Xiaobo's Nobel prize ceremony takes place in Oslo on December 10, Human Rights day, it is uncertain whether this award will benefit Chinese activists. Indeed, the effects on the ground thus far have been almost wholly negative. Activists in China are more closely scrutinized and repressed now than before, and families and friends have been collateral damage. Liu's wife, Liu Xia, is under house arrest. Liu's colleagues have been prevented from leaving the country. Kindred spirits have been prevented from entering China -- last month, my aunt and my sister were denied visas to visit my father. I hope to visit soon, but fear I will also be denied.

Nonetheless, the Chinese people know as well as anyone that history is not decided in only a few weeks. The writing of the post-Nobel chapter for Chinese activists has just begun. Ultimately, what the prize means depends on what happens next, and that battle is intensifying.

An attitude gaining popularity is that scolding China is counter-productive. This echoes the advice a Chinese lawyer gave me when I last visited. He said my family should shun the international media, and even visit less frequently. That, he said, would improve my father's prospects for release.

Needless to say, kowtowing to my father's jailers would be a bitter pill to swallow, regardless of its efficacy. Besides, my father would not want that. Nor, I suspect, would Liu. Further, whatever the pragmatics may be, the ethics are clear. To stay quiet would be to submit to the unreasonable demands of a bully. To stand for what is right, however, without equivocation or fear of backlash, is usually to stand on the side of history.

Another argument gaining currency says that imprisoning Liu and other activists is a necessary sacrifice because challenging the Party's legitimacy in any way threatens stability and economic growth. However, Party rule has never been the main driver of China's success -- that noble distinction belongs to the entrepreneurship, talent, and work ethic of Chinese people. The Party has indeed competently shepherded the process along, but there is no reason to believe a more democratic government could not perform substantially as well.

There is also no reason to believe that allowing Liu to express his views freely would be disastrously destabilizing, or would unacceptably impede economic progress. Liu does not advocate revolution, or a return to a Communist economy. Imprisoning Liu is a naked act of self-preservation for self-preservation's sake, and does not in any way benefit the Chinese people. If only the average Chinese citizen knew the unfiltered facts, they would reject such self-serving behavior.

Unfortunately, demonizing the West in the domestic press and inciting nationalism has become the last refuge of the Party's scoundrels, and the average citizen gets their facts through this lens. The Party's hysterical portrayal of the prize's sponsors as "clowns" and of the prize event as an international conspiracy is rivaled in its absurdity only by its desperate creation of a rival peace prize, and its shrill denunciation of Liu as a despicable Western stooge, the likes of which China has never known before. The saddest irony of this strategy is that Liu is the first Chinese person to win the Nobel while still a citizen--of all China's laureates, only he chose to live in China. Yet instead of pride, the Party fills its people's hearts with hatred.

Will it work? And what of the cause of peace? The prize has imbued activists with moral strength, but it has also painted a target on their backs. Whether peace is enhanced depends on how activists proceed. If the Party's arrows keep finding their marks, the status quo, which is at best a profoundly imperfect stability falling far short of meaningful peace, will persist. If, on the other hand, activists skillfully seize and maintain the moral high ground while avoiding the arrows, peace may yet stand a chance.

And who are these activists? They are people like Liu Xiaobo, my father, and countless other allies inside and outside China. And increasingly, with the support provided by the Nobel, they are their families and friends -- ordinary people like me.