My Take

A free Liu Xiaobo will be less of a headache for Beijing

PUBLISHED : Friday, 01 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 01 March, 2013, 3:32am

Communists are supposed to be unsentimental realists who care only about outcomes and results. So even judging by the ethics-free standard of pure realpolitik, the jailing of dissident and Nobel peace prize winner Liu Xiaobo has been a complete disaster for Beijing.

It helped him win a Nobel Prize, which in turn attracted more supporters around the world and put China's human rights record in the spotlight. The nation justifiably takes pride in its culture, rapid rise and glowing influence, but being the only country in the world that is keeping a Nobel peace laureate in jail runs counter to its great aspirations.

Now, another global campaign to free Liu is under way - launched by no less a world figure and fellow Nobel laureate as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and already signed by hundreds of thousands of people. Predictably, it has become a rallying cry for Hong Kong's pan-democrats and those who oppose the central government.

Tutu is no China basher. At the same time as the campaign's launch, Tutu wrote to denounce the US hi-tech drone assassination programme. His even-handed criticism, directed at great nations that have done wrong, makes his voice all the more powerful.

Instead of jailing Liu, suppose Beijing granted him a tenure professorship in a university. Whatever critical commentaries he writes would not possibly attract the kind of global attention and worldwide readership he and his work now enjoy. Indeed, the quality of his political ideas is debatable. His early work betrays an uncritical adoration of Western democracy, rationality and enlightenment ideals. Later, after a US university fellowship, he became more critical. Charter 08 contains a similar mixture of democratic freedoms and domestic reforms which are already hotly debated in China.

That his work has escaped much-deserved critical appraisal is largely because his status as China's leading dissident serves many useful causes and political agendas, and also because of genuine sympathy for his courage and suffering. The new leadership under Xi Jinping cannot afford to insist on jailing Liu.

Free him now. Whatever criticism he will make as a free man will be far less damaging than his continuing incarceration.