Pro-democracy activists hold pictures of Liu Xiaobo. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP. From the Guardian.

A Nobel peace prize for Chinese rights activist Liu
Xiaobo is a landmark moment. Here Kerry Brown, of the British international affairs think-tank Chatham House, gives some background to a writer who is little known in Europe and the US. 

The Chinese writer and prominent legal activist Liu Xiaobo was
subject to the travesty of a brief court process on 23 December 2009 and
given a brutal sentence of eleven years’ imprisonment two days later.
The decision ended
a year of uncertainty surrounding the dissident, who in December 2008
had publicised the call for civic rights and freedoms known as Charter 08; his trial
came six months after he was placed under “house arrest” (at a detention
centre which in fact was not his normal place of residence), itself six
months after he was arrested
and placed formally under investigation over his role in the charter.

The speed of China’s physical transformation – ever-taller buildings,
ultra-modern cities, high-speed trains, grand civic buildings – can
conceal from view the deep immobility in other areas. In 1994, when I
was based in the northern city of Hohhot
in inner Mongolia, it was only through acquiring a copy of the Guardian’s
weekly overseas edition that I learned of the fate of the most renowned
dissident of that era, Wei
Jingsheng
. He had already spent fourteen years inside for his
pioneering role in the “democracy wall” movement of 1978-79, when he
famously called
for the government to embark on a “fifth modernisation” to match the
four it had committed itself to: namely, democracy.

Soon after being released in 1993, Wei’s refusal to remain quiet and
irritation of the paramount leader Deng Xiaoping led him
to be sent back for trial. In a hasty one-day hearing in Beijing on a
cold and subdued January day, he was condemned to another fourteen
years. I remember looking at the newspaper photo of the police deployed
in the areas around the courtroom, keeping foreign reporters as far away
as possible. Wei had not been properly seen or heard from for a long
time. I felt greatly impressed by the courage he must have had to stand
against this sort of isolating onslaught.

Wei was released in 1997, after constant pressure on Beijing from the
United States, the European Union and others. Years later, I met him in
London where he was giving a speech at an Amnesty International event.
His sprightly, sharp humour was undiminished by almost two decades in
prison. I told him of an incident in December 1999 when as a
foreign-official in London I had been given a list of high- level
Chinese leaders to whom Christmas cards should be sent on behalf of
Britain’s then foreign secretary, the late Robin
Cook
. I just managed to prevent the despatch of seasonal greetings
to Deng Xiaoping, who had died two years previously. Wei Jingsheng was
both greatly amused and seized on the point that bureaucratic
incompetence was truly universal among states.

Behind the fist

Liu
Xiaobo
will need the same sort of resilience as Wei Jingsheng’s to
survive, and perhaps he too will one day be let free to live in the
west. But whatever the future holds in his case, there is about China’s
treatment of its most prominent “internal” dissident a vengeful
harshness that sends a bleak signal.

Liu’s greatest violation in the government’s eyes was to draft the
Charter 08 document that was to be signed by hundreds of Chinese writers
and intellectuals. In itself, the
charter is little more than a lucid call for greater transparency and
openness; but at least a couple of its sentences have evidently
irritated the most powerful leaders in China very deeply. Their
treatment of Liu is a stark message to its supporters inside and outside
China: if you mess with us here, we will annihilate you – so get on and
make money like everyone else, while leaving matters of rights, law and
democracy well alone.

There is, independently of Liu’s statements or the way he has
presented them, a puzzling element about this attitude. Why do the
peaceful actions of one individual, who is barely known in the west,
provoke this extreme fury? The Chinese government, after all, has become
used to acting with brusque confidence in the international arena; its performance
at the Copenhagen climate-change summit in December 2009 (which came
soon after it had secured an abject statement
from Denmark for meeting the Dalai Lama in May), is but one example. It
seems extraordinary that a sovereign nation of 1.4 billion people, the
world’s largest exporter
with over $2 trillion in currency reserves, can demean itself by acting
in this way.

China’s inability to ignore Liu Xiaobo, or merely to rebut his
statements and leave it at that, leaves it looking weaker than before.
For in its response to such cases, the mighty Chinese government begins
to look a much frailer thing – less a dynamic, thrusting
superpower-in-waiting than a fragile, insecure state.

The day that China feels no need to force its immense hands over the
mouth of a single individual’s mouth for fear of him having the strength
to speak out will be the day that it really will have risen, and be
ready to shake
the world
. The treatment of Liu Xiaobo argues against that
happening any time soon.

Kerry Brown is an associate fellow on the Asia programme,
Chatham House. His books include Struggling
Giant: China in the 21st Century
(Anthem Press, 2007) and Friends
and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of
China
(Anthem Press, 2009). His website is here.  This article has been republished from openDemocracy.net under a Creative Commons licence.