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Chinese Dissident’s Prison Sentence Draws Criticism

December 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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A Chinese court has sentenced a prominent political dissident to 11 years in prison. Margaret Warner speaks with an advocate for human rights in China and a former National Security Council Asia expert for more on the meaning of the conviction.
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MARGARET WARNER: And for more on the meaning of today’s conviction of Liu Xiaobo, we turn to Sharon Hom, executive director of the advocacy organization Human Rights in China, a longtime professor at City University of New York School of Law. She’s written extensively about legal reform issues in China. And Douglas Paal, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he served as an Asia expert and a director on the National Security Council staff during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

Welcome to you both.

Ms. Hom, how big a deal is this, how significant a development, to have a leading Chinese intellectual like this get this kind of conviction and sentence?

SHARON HOM, executive director, Human Rights in China: It’s an extremely significant case, both domestically and internationally, one because it’s not the first Chinese intellectual or lawyer or journalist or activist who has been charged, convicted and sentenced for this crime of — this crime of incitement to subvert state power.

And, sadly, he won’t be the last. So, it’s extremely significant, as what’s really on trial is the Chinese constitutional rights that are supposedly protecting and the human rights amendment, and China’s willingness to respect international human rights including freedom of expression.

So, the significance of the case is, what it’s really demonstrated is that the Chinese government cannot and will not abide by its international obligations to respect human rights. This is very clear to Chinese inside China. It is clear to the international community. It’s clear to the governments.

This is actually a message that the Chinese government has been sending for many, many years. And one would only hope that, this time, the message is clear that something very serious has to be done to address the human rights abuses inside China.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that’s what this says, Doug Paal? And explain why, for instance, Liu Xiaobo’s offering this Charter 08 was seen as so threatening to the Chinese government.

DOUGLAS PAAL, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Well, it rings memories of the late period of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia then organized his charter movement and got dissident intellectuals to speak up against the continued rule of the Communist Party.

China learned a lot of lessons from that experience in ’89 to ’91, studied what the Soviet did, and found a lot of what they did was wrong, from China’s perspective. Therefore, they put their heavy emphasis on economic growth, in exchange for no expansion of individual personal freedoms, and certainly no political freedoms.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you say that’s the basic bargain, Ms. Hom, that the Chinese government is trying to strike with the Chinese people; we will give you a lot of economic growth, and more economic freedom, but, in return, do not challenge our monopoly on power?

SHARON HOM: I think that’s, in part, a very good statement of the bargain that was struck, particularly post-crackdown of the June 4, 1989 crackdown, that is, make money, yes, democracy, no.

But the importance of Charter 08 is beyond a petition, in addition to what Doug Paal just said. Charter 08 presents a very cogent analysis of the last almost 100 years of Chinese history, and enumerates a list of periods of history of human rights disasters. And this has all been laid at the foot of a regime that doesn’t allow freedom of expression, independent civil society voices.

And then what the charter set forth is a call to implement international human rights in the Chinese context. So, I think that is in part why there is such a strong reaction from the authorities.

But the other reaction is, is because Charter 08, back in December 2008, was really signed by over 300, one of the most diverse group. So, in addition to intellectuals and scholars, it was signed by workers. It was signed by petitioners. It was signed by journalists. It was a diverse group.

And now, more than a year later, despite almost a year of Chinese police, security forces, and other — and — and the whole machinery intimidating, detaining, questioning individuals who did sign it, you actually now have over 10,000 signatures.

So, what the significance of it is, is, despite the intimidation and the detention and this 11-year sentence, individuals in China continue, and will continue, to demand the kinds of democratic reforms. You now have over 450 individuals have signed an online petition, who have said: We claim collective responsibility. We signed Charter 08. And if this is guilt — if Liu Xiaobo is guilty, we, too, are responsible for signing.

MARGARET WARNER: So…

SHARON HOM: So, in fact, the intimidation tactics are not working to silence Chinese people.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Doug Paal, that raises the question, if so many people signed this, and he had so many co-authors, why did they go after him in particular? What — how important a figure is he?

DOUGLAS PAAL: He is a key intellectual spark plug for this movement. He’s a proven hero of the movement, because he went to prison after coming back to Tiananmen to protest in 1989.

MARGARET WARNER: When he could have just stayed at Columbia.

DOUGLAS PAAL: Stayed at the university and been protected in — under American protection.

But he went back. He’s a brave person. He’s taken on the state in the most direct way that an intellectual can. And he represents a big threat to the state, as an individual and as a representative of this movement.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Professor Hom, what does this say, do you think, about the often-advanced theory that the more China experiences prosperity, the more it gets integrated into the global economy, the more that will lead inexorably to greater political freedom? I mean, is that just not going to be operative in China’s case? Or do you think that the Chinese government is just trying to hold back a wave here?

SHARON HOM: Well, clearly, there has been — in terms of macroeconomic growth, there has been progress in China, but at what cost?

And the cost has been the sustainability of the environment — there is massive environmental degradation — and really at the cost of cracking down on an independent media, on an independent civil society. So, there has been economic development, but the — it has also been at the cost of resource extraction from Tibet and from Xinjiang. And that is not benefiting the local population.

And perhaps Liu Xiaobo’s own words would be appropriate here. He wrote in 2006 that this wasn’t inevitable that economic progress would inevitably lead to political reform. We have seen that that has absolutely not been the case.

And with the respect — and, in terms of global democratization, he writes, China is a key player. Without China in that game, the game will — China needs to be in the democracy game for the game to be alive. In other words, if China doesn’t democratize, the consequences are quite serious for the region, for the world, in addition to — for Chinese people.

MARGARET WARNER: But, yet, Doug Paal, the Chinese government today just dismissed all the foreign criticism as — quote — “crude meddling in China’s internal affairs.”

I mean, what do you see as the relationship between China’s growing global role and its continuing crackdown like this?

DOUGLAS PAAL: Well, it’s contradictory.

The Chinese have just have 20 of the best years of the last 250 years in Chinese history, a lot of prosperity. Young people who are college students today don’t remember Tiananmen, but they do know their country is standing taller now, that they have more individual freedoms than they have had in a long time, so long as they don’t challenge the state.

Over against this, you have got a regime that’s concerned about movements that might emerge among the people, that’s terrified of ethnic violence and repression in — in — or in Xinjiang and Tibet, who actually had to confine President Obama during his visit to China, so that he wouldn’t be able to reach the Chinese people.

So, it’s a contradiction between the self-confidence of power, of prestige, resources, over against fear of internal threat.

MARGARET WARNER: And one — a contradiction that will continue, no doubt, for many years to come.

Douglas Paal and Professor Hom, thank you both very much.

DOUGLAS PAAL: You’re welcome.

SHARON HOM: Thank you.