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Tragedy of Liu Xiaobo shows why China is not Mandela’s South Africa

John Chan says Liu Xiaobo was misled by an illusory but honest belief in a peaceful change to democratic governance, but the confident one-party system of China probably renders any such hopes futile

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 25 July, 2017, 2:21pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 July, 2017, 6:57pm

Liu Xiaobo’s (劉曉波) story is a tragic one, both for himself and for China. While none can doubt the Nobel Peace laureate’s sincerity and devotion in pushing for democracy and human rights in China, which led to his predicament, as a scholar, he – like many vocal dissidents of the past three decades – was misled by his illusory but honest belief that his sincerity could change the one-party dictatorship regime.

Liu had been in and out of prison or compulsory confinement for 10 years after being involved in the 1989 pro-democracy movement. He was last arrested in December 2008, for co-authoring “Charter 08”, in which he criticised the system, saying, despite the reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), “there are laws but there is no rule of law. There is a Constitution but no constitutional governance”.

Charter 08 told of the people’s right to choose their government and key civil servants, and officials of all levels, through elections. Based on such democratic principles, it called for “abolishing the provisions in the current Constitution that are not in conformity with the principle that sovereignty resides in the people”.

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The principles outlined in Charter 08 are commonplace in any liberal democracy, yet, to Beijing, advocating them amounts to subversion, as one of the four cardinal principles – as well as the most important one enshrined in the preamble to the Constitution – is the leadership of the Communist Party, which is also the legal basis for one-party dictatorship in China.

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The tragedy of Liu was his belief that China’s one-party rule could be changed peacefully through his sincerity and the efforts of those in China who believe in the universality of Western democratic values.

The People’s Republic was established by the Chinese Communist Party through armed struggle. Its confidence in seeing itself as the only party given the mandate to rule came from its victory in the people’s liberation war against the Kuomintang, hence its firm belief that the Chinese people had chosen it to lead China. The monopoly of its one-party rule was thus written with confidence into the Chinese Constitution as one of the unshakeable principles. Notwithstanding policy mistakes, sometimes almost fatal, made in first 30 years of the People’s Republic, such confidence has persisted and is reaffirmed by the remarkable achievement in the transformation of Chinese society and the economic development of recent years.

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Faith in one-party rule was further boosted by the doctrine of “Three Confidences”, namely “confident in our chosen path, confident in our guiding theories, and confident in our political system”, heralded in 2012 by then party general secretary and China’s president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤). Current president and party general secretary Xi Jinping (習近平) last year added a fourth: “confident in our culture”. The “Three Confidences” echoed the three cardinal principles enshrined in the Constitution – adhering to the socialist road with Chinese characteristics, Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong (毛澤東) Thought, and the people’s democratic dictatorship – in addition to the unshakeable principle of the party’s leadership.

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A commentary in The Guardian in December 2010, shortly after Liu was awarded the Peace Prize, said it was “a prize for politics of certain kind” and noted a Nobel Institute director’s remark that the Norwegian Nobel Committee most often selected “those who had spoken out ... against the Communist dictators in Moscow and the dictators in Beijing”.

Liu was selected for his peaceful call to China to abandon one-party rule; for the same reason, he was convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” . The one-party dictatorship knows well that the way it dealt with Liu’s call in the past, and the way it deals with his supporters’ call after his death, will have far-reaching impact on the party, as well as on the people of China.

The tragic end of Liu is a reminder of the inconvenient truth that China is not 1993 peace laureate Nelson Mandela’s apartheid South Africa, nor is China 1991 laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s Myanmar, ruled by a military junta struggling under prolonged sanctions imposed by the West. Democracy of any kind that is close to Western-style liberal democracy is not likely to take root in China in the foreseeable future.

John Chan is a practising solicitor and a founding member of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong