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A Chinese Dissident's Conviction: Calibrating Western Response

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I am a long-term resident of China, working in an industry -- advertising -- in which productivity is inextricably linked to robust self-expression. Like most Western commentators, I am saddened by the conviction of Liu Xiaobo, who has been jailed for up to 11 years. His crime was to help draft a petition known as Charter 08 that demanded the right to free speech, open elections and the rule of law.

Most observers believe Liu did not advocate the overthrow of the Communist party; his actions, therefore, were not seditious. Furthermore, the nature of his trial -- suddenly announced, quickly executed and closed to foreign observers -- makes even pretense of due process risible. Critics of the Communist regime are right that Liu's draconian punishment is indicative of a fear-based, insecure power structure, awkwardly wielding a Leninist iron fist at home while striving to become a power broker abroad.

I believe the CCP's hyper-sensitivity to even the slightest whiff of dissent undermines its own legitimacy in the eyes of mainland citizens. This post will not defend the decisions of the government. It will, however, attempt to explain them.

Does the Communist Party want to cling to power, irrespective of citizens' will? Yes. But, for the time being, fueled by clear-eyed pragmatism and lack of an alternative governing apparatus, the masses have no choice but to hope the party to succeeds. Amongst mainlanders, the Chinese government does not lack legitimacy. On balance, it has delivered the goods.

No Moral Absolutes. My guess is a large portion of Chinese citizens, even amongst the "new middle class," would likely support the Party's decision to sentence Liu. (Censorship has prevented his case from being widely reported.) True, many would shake their heads, ruing the distance China still must travel to achieve global standards of civil rights and decency. But many of these same people also believe China is not yet ready for "free expression," even the non-violent, non-subversive sort. Their reservations are not the product of Orwellian brain washing, robotically programmed into the minds of an unquestioning, easily-cowed population. Rather they reflect certain "truths" regarding Chinese culture and the relationship between individual and state, reinforced across millennia.

Chinese have no conception of moral absolutes. The "individual" is not a fundamental building block of society. The clan's interest, defined on both familial and national levels, remains the basis of all acceptable conduct. The Chinese worldview is cyclical, with the forces of yin and yang, light and darkness, positive and negative, rebalancing themselves across time and space. To boot, the structure of the universe -- and society -- is characterized by an intricate inter-connectivity. Without whipping up an algebraic lather, suffice it to say that Chinese philosophy and morality frowns upon rights that exist independent of context. Torture, or even murder, facilitated through a complaint judiciary subordinated to the Party, will be "justified" -- practically all citizens support, by international standards, indiscriminate application of the death penalty -- if it militates against "chaos." Progress is built on a foundation of "stability." Order is a prerequisite to advancement. Universal rights, while appreciated as lovely ideals, are not viewed as "practical" given China's current stage of social and economic development. Human rights questions are resolved based on whether they promote, or degrade, "harmony."

Harsh treatment of Tibetan or Uigyur rioters, for example, is supported by practically everyone. In China, territorial "unity" is sacrosanct, the ultimate defense against an unfamiliar outside world. Knowledge of Liu Xiaobo's case, on the other hand, would trigger ambivalence. On one hand, Liu's methods are non-violent. His goals are benign. He is neither agitator nor demagogue. He advocates what he believes to be in the best interest of the China, still more a "civilization state" than a "nation state" governed by laws. On the other, most Chinese fear their society is not mature enough to debate - let alone digest -- Charter 08. Can even good intentions destabilize emotions, people wonder, thereby threatening economic momentum? (A minority of citizens probably suspect Liu's undeclared end objective is, in fact, to overturn one-party rule. Assuming, and only assuming, this were true, he would be vilified, even by those who have not yet benefited from economic reform.)

How We Should Respond. In light of both the government's and citizens' trenchant fear of instability, how should Westerners respond to a conviction that violates our sense of decency? Above all, we should not wag fingers, or patronize. We must acknowledge that China's stage of development and gigantic population that still consists of 700 million peasants do, indeed, pose challenges America and Europe do not fully comprehend. Chinese are, if nothing else, supreme pragmatists. We should adopt measured tones and empirically-based polemics. We should focus energies on persuading Communist rules that gradual political reform -- implementing judicial independence; clarifying of anti-sedition laws; expanding elections of local and provincial leadership posts; instituting intra-party checks and balances -- would make China more, not less, stable. We should stand with China's mandarins as partners in progress, helping them realize the country's middle class will demand a level of democratic responsiveness the Party is currently ill-equipped to deliver.

Barack Obama's non-hectoring approach, almost quantitatively analytic, is pitch perfect. The State Department's statement called on China to release Liu, saying that the "persecution of individuals for the peaceful expression of political views is inconsistent with internationally recognized norms of human rights." A clear-eyed, non-fiery response is just what the doctor ordered.

The administration forfeits brownie points across the political spectrum for not stridently espousing moral absolutes -- unlike, say, Angela Merkel's "dismay" at the sentence or the United Nations' rumbling that Liu's conviction had thrown "an ominous shadow" over China's commitment to human rights. But, over here, Obama's calm, methodical approach to conflict resolution generates respect. (Leaders have already signaled that the RMB will, sooner or later, appreciate. They gave ground during Copenhagen on carbon emission monitoring. And their approach towards mercurial North Korea and belligerent Iran is slowly aligning with American interests.) If Chinese leaders do not feel threatened -- or misunderstood -- by outside forces, they will, over time, bend to global and domestic reality. Our goal should be to apply just enough (fact-based) pressure for rulers to conduct objective cost/benefit analyses regarding their own short- and long-term interests. Only then will we be able to bridge a cultural chasm, one that will never disappear.