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China, the nervous dragon

The Nobel Peace Prize to the Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo, will not change Beijing’s ways. There is deep distrust of democracy among China’s power elites. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri and Reshma Patil report.

delhi Updated: Oct 12, 2010 11:47 IST

A day after jailed writer Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize, Beijing police prevented lawyer Teng Biao from attending a celebration dinner. Three of his friends were detained for eight days. Some activists were ordered out of the capital to suppress news of the Nobel from reaching the ordinary Chinese.

“Some lawyers are under house arrest,” said Teng.

China may be the dragon economy, but it acted like a startled rabbit when a mild-mannered Chinese dissident won a Nobel for two decades of campaigning for fundamental freedom.

“China seems very powerful but it’s very vulnerable,” said Teng, a rights lawyer since 2003. He sees no loosening of Beijing’s grip on dissidents and protestors.

“After the Nobel, the government’s control on civil society will be tighter. If the government doesn’t control information about the Nobel ... they are very afraid that ordinary people will be encouraged to do the same (as Liu).”

Beijing’s dissident phobia can be mystifying. Liu is a pacifist, famously smashing the gun of an armed worker who offered to fight alongside pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Other dissidents, such as exiled scientist Fang Lizhi, think he’s too soft and petitioned against him winning the Nobel.

Says sinologist Richard Rigby of Australian National University, “Liu, like most dissidents, is a great patriot.”

And, he adds, “Most people pay little attention to what he says anyway.”

Beijing barely differentiates between loyalists who want a cleaner party and man-the-barricade types. The source of this paranoia is a deep Chinese awareness of their country’s bloody history. As scholar James Hsiung points out, political legitimacy in China is earned by claiming to rule through a “correct ideology”. If the ideology is questioned, so is the basis of the regime’s right to rule.

Dissidents don’t matter as individuals, wrote Ian Buruma in Bad Elements, a book on Chinese rebels, “but their ideas are seen, quite correctly, as a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the one-party state.”

Today’s Chinese Communist Party offers this deal to its people: we make you rich and China powerful, in return you don’t demand political rights. When this exchange is questioned, the foundations of the state are shaken.

Yet the party rhetorically accepts it must one day embrace the “Fifth Modernisation” – democracy. Premier Wen Jiabao has spoken of the need for democratic reforms for four years. Even President Hu Jintao has endorsed intra-party elections at local and provincial levels. But Beijing finds it hard to bite the ballot for four reasons.

Fear of chaos
The Chinese often question if they are ready for political freedom, whether this would not open the door to
anarchy.

A three-year-old report, said to be Hu’s blueprint, warned that when a nation’s economy and polity were still developing, “one-sided emphasis on freedom of speech could potentially create chaos in public opinion”.

Beijing hardliners point to the tragic and violent conclusions of reform movements going back to the founding of the Chinese republic in 1949. Moscow opened the door, they note, and the Soviet collapse followed.

“The Chinese state views dissidents through the lens of 1989, as foreign agents who want to bring instability to China,” said China analyst Bruce Gilley.

Fear of the foreign
Beijing also sees a sinister foreign hand in “Western” imports like democracy.

“(Our) government and (the) people have the right to refuse to accept the Western demand that China shall have a Western-style democracy...If we borrow some model it will lead to disaster,” said Shi Yinhong of the Centre on American Studies, Renmin University. He admitted the party was ‘too conservative’ in approaching political reform – but insisted reform must be defined with Chinese characteristics. China Daily editorialised on Monday that the Nobel might be about “a Western plot to contain a rising China”.

Fear of the people
By most accounts, dissidents don’t have much popular support. But the party still fears they could spark something. China, after all, is a history marked by revolution.

“China’s leaders know that for all their economic accomplishments, there is widespread discontent over issues such as corruption,” said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a specialist on Chinese protests.

“This leads them to alternate between seeming supremely confident and quite insecure.”

Wasserstrom and Gilley note that Liu’s democracy manifesto was inspired by anti-Soviet playwright Vaclav Havel, who later became Czech president.

“Havel and collaborators once seemed as powerless as Liu, yet they ended up, miraculously, being part of transitions to post-Communist times in those countries,” Wasserstrom says.

The Nobel is unlikely to impact the way Beijing does things. But it highlights the contradiction of an economic colossus standing on feet of political clay.

“Liu may speak softly but he carries a big world-historical stick,” said Gilley. This is why the dark-suited men of the world’s most powerful political party fear him, and a lawyer in Beijing can’t step out for dinner without the police following him.