from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Human Rights Day Arrives in China: The "Shadow of the Future"

December 7, 2012

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December 10 is Human Rights Day, and the International Committee for Liu Xiaobo along with Chinese advocates of human rights have organized a petition of 134 Nobel Prize winners demanding the release of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. Their letter to Xi Jinping, the new General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, as well as the list of Nobel Prize winners, can be found here. They have also launched a citizens’ petition drive aimed at the Chinese government, and it has gathered 200,000 signatures so far. These drives have a second goal as well: the release from years of house arrest of Liu’s wife Liu Xia. And today we have a remarkable Associated Press (AP) report on Liu Xia, because two AP reporters managed to get to her apartment when the policemen outside her home went off to lunch. An account and a video of the interview can be found at China Digital Times. Here is an excerpt:

BEIJING (AP) — Stunned that reporters were able to visit her, Liu Xia trembled uncontrollably and cried as she described how absurd and emotionally draining her confinement under house arrest has been in the two years since her jailed activist husband, Liu Xiaobo, was named a Nobel Peace laureate.

Her voice shook and she was breathless from disbelief at receiving unexpected visitors.

Liu said her continuing house arrest has been painfully surreal and in stark....Liu said she has been confined to her duplex apartment in downtown Beijing with no Internet or outside phone line and is only allowed weekly trips to buy groceries and visit her parents.

"We live in such an absurd place," she said. "It is so absurd. I felt I was a person emotionally prepared to respond to the consequences of Liu Xiaobo winning the prize. But after he won the prize, I really never imagined that after he won, I would not be able to leave my home. This is too absurd. I think Kafka could not have written anything more absurd and unbelievable than this."

Once a month, she is taken to see her husband in prison. It wasn’t clear when Liu Xia started regular visits with her husband or if they would continue following her interview. She was denied visits for more than a year after she saw him two days after his Nobel win and emerged to tell the world that he had dedicated the award to those who died in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.

This week also brought a letter, now with the signatures of 300 Chinese activists, asking for the release of Liu Xiaobo and his wife and for broader reforms:

Inside China and abroad, people are hoping to see signs for political reform as China ushers in new leadership. Systematic political changes are complex and many-faceted, requiring rational deliberation and orderly actions, and we would like to see various social forces working together to advance this process.

We propose the followings as initial steps for political and social change:

1. Initiate legal procedures immediately to reverse the wrong verdict against Dr. Liu Xiaobo, and set him free as soon as possible;

2. Immediately lift the restrictions imposed on Liu Xia, Liu Xiaobo’s wife, ending forced isolation, and allowing her to live her normal life;

3. Immediately free those who have been detained or sentenced for their political stand, expression, or religious beliefs;

4. Immediately cease surveillance of people who hold independent political positions or/and expressing independent opinions, and remove all forms of restrictions on their freedom of movement.

We believe that the existence of political prisoners does not help China to build its image of a responsible world power. Ending political imprisonment is an important benchmark for China to move toward a civilized political system.

China faces complex problems, and reform is a difficult endeavor that requires all the effort from all the people.

These internal and international initiatives are a reminder that the struggle for human rights in China is very much alive as Human Rights Day 2012 approaches. The recent leadership changes, in which the Chinese people played no role whatsoever, only served to magnify the lack of democracy and of respect for human rights in the Peoples Republic. The Chinese people’s search for constitutional government is well over a century old now, and if economic modernization has made gigantic strides in that period political modernization has not. But the struggle is of course not over, despite vast and brutal repression. China’s rulers will never achieve real and lasting legitimacy through repression.

No one has expressed this better than Andrew Nathan, who explained in the Journal of Democracy in 2009 that China’s rulers face a problem they will never be able to solve:

But like all contemporary nondemocratic systems, the Chinese system suffers from a birth defect that it cannot cure: the fact that an alternative form of government is by common consent more legitimate. Even though the regime claims to be a Chinese form of democracy on the grounds that it serves the people and rules in their interest, and even though a majority of Chinese citizens today accept that claim, the regime admits, and everyone knows, that its authority has never been subject to popular review and is never intended to be. In that sense, the regime is branded as an expedient, something temporary and transitional needed to meet the exigencies of the time. Democratic regimes, by contrast, often elicit disappointment and frustration, but they confront no rival form that outshines them in prestige. Authoritarian regimes in this sense are not forever. For all their diversity and longevity, they live under the shadow of the future, vulnerable to existential challenges that mature democratic systems do not face.

The future of China is visible now in the petitions and letters being written by citizens who are demanding their rights and rejecting the claims of the Party to rule forever.

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