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Liu Xiaobo’s death in custody epitomises China’s steadfast intransigence toward human rights

Image credit: Etam Liam (Flickr: Creative Commons)

Liu Xiaobo, celebrated literary critic, rebel scholar, Nobel Peace Prize winner and democracy activist, sadly passed away from liver cancer on 13 July. His last requests to access medical treatment abroad were all vehemently denied by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and Liu passed whilst on medical parole in Northeastern China under guard. He was 61 years old and only three years away from release.

Liu was first jailed for two years in 1989 in the wake of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, for the leadership and assistance he gave to student protesters. He organised a hunger strike, negotiated a peaceful exit from the Square and is credited with saving many young lives. This was the first of four jail sentences that Liu would serve for his pro-democracy sensibilities. His final arrest in 2009 was owed to his involvement in drafting Charter 08, a manifesto calling for greater human rights and democratic freedoms in China. He was charged with ‘inciting subversion of state power’ and sentenced to 11 years in prison.

After news of his illness became public on 26 June, various human rights organisations and foreign Governments called on the CCP to release Liu; if not entirely, then at least to seek medical treatment in a location of his choosing. Unsurprisingly, the CCP dismissed these pleas for clemency as meddling in China’s domestic affairs.

As China’s global clout expands, is the international community overall becoming less willing to hold the economic powerhouse accountable for committing human rights atrocities? At the recent G20 Summit, there was a distinct silence regarding Liu’s plight. Further, even Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg declined to comment on Liu’s case.

In 2010, when Norway awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiabo in absentia, Beijing froze bilateral links with the state for six years. Beijing and Oslo normalised relations in December last year, while free trade agreement negotiations only resumed in April this year. Norway’s passivity shows China has become so economically vital that states are reluctant to press the CCP on human rights issues, lest they compromise their own economic interests.

The CCP’s overall approach to human rights has irrefutably been ruthless, severe and often brutal. Progress and control are prioritised at the expense of minority groups, and dissenting voices are quickly distinguished. Although China has repeatedly signalled its distaste for other states criticising its human rights record, if this pressure fades, the CCP may feel empowered to further curtail freedoms and punish nonconformity. But even if China has seemingly grown rich enough to muffle critics, it's worth asking whether the international community would have been able to sway Liu Xiaobo’s fate had more pressure been applied, or whether any attempt to challenge the formidable machine that is the CCP on a domestic human rights issue is ultimately futile.

Liu’s case epitomises the uncomfortable discord between China’s claims to responsible global leadership and the CCP’s readiness to show no mercy when any of its core interests are threatened. As Beijing’s international influence grows, its tact of winning respect through aid and investment projects is proving advantageous. China is also actively posturing itself as an international leader on climate change, taking advantage of the political vacuum created by President Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Agreement. Despite these actions to strengthen soft power and appear progressive, Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s East Asia director, aptly commented:

‘Hastening the death of a Nobel Peace laureate is not the kind of leadership that the world needs from China. The treatment of Liu Xiaobo should sound serious alarms bells about China’s commitment to abide by international norms when the interest of the Communist party appear to be at stake’.

Liu Xiaobo was buried at sea, the same way the US buried Osama Bin Laden, so as to prevent a public memorial site. He is the second Nobel Peace laureate to die in custody; the first was Carl von Ossietzki in 1938 Nazi Germany. Liu valorously dedicated his life to peacefully fighting what he knew to be an unwinnable fight, demanding freedoms which he believed he and his countrymen deserved, but which do not exist in one party China. He described freedom of expression as ‘the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth’. In a painful irony, however, this prolific activist remains largely unknown in his own country, and any news of his death or information about his life, work and struggle has been removed entirely from Chinese language media.

Liu Xiaobo is survived by his wife, fellow poet Liu Xia, who has been under house arrest since 2010 when her husband was awarded the Peace Prize. Liu Xia has not been convicted of any crime.

Clare O’Meara is the China Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.

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