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The Prize for China
9th October 2010

From one activist to another, we cannot resist commenting on yesterday's award of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese democracy and human rights campaigner Liu Xiaobo, who is currently serving an 11-year jail term imposed on 25-Dec-2009 for "agitation aimed at subverting state power". His crime was to be one of the authors of Charter 08, a petition signed by over 350 intellectuals and activists demanding the right to free speech, democracy and an independent judiciary.

China predictably reacted to the award with its usual bellicose rhetoric and censored internet coverage and discussion of the event. Mobile text messages with Liu's name were reportedly blocked. Such is the success of the Great Firewall of China that many of the 1.3 billion citizens have no idea who Liu Xiaobo is.

In the same week, Premier Wen Jiabao gave an interview to CNN in which he said:

"I believe freedom of speech is indispensable, for any country, a country in the course of development and a country that has become strong. Freedom of speech has been incorporated into the Chinese constitution [Article 35].

I don't think you know all about China on this point. In China, there are about 400 million Internet users and 800 million mobile phone subscribers. They can access the Internet to express their views, including critical views...

I believe I and all the Chinese people have such a conviction that China will make continuous progress, and the people's wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible. I hope that you will be able to gradually see the continuous progress of China."

Strong stuff - and spoken for an overseas audience. In mainland China, the interview was blocked by censors, so citizens don't get to hear their Premier using his constitutional freedom of speech to advocate, well, freedom of speech.

Liu Xiaobo joins an elite of activists among previous Nobel Peace laureates including Nelson Mandela (1993), who went on to be President of South Africa, Lech Walesa (1983), who went on to be President of Poland, and Aung San Suu Kyi (1991), still under house arrest in Burma, who would otherwise have been Prime Minister after the 1990 election which her party won.

Liu's prize is a wake-up call to the Chinese leadership. China's huge economic progress since 1979 has not been accompanied by liberalization of human rights, particularly freedoms of speech, the media, debate and information, nor the establishment of an independent judiciary. In our view, these freedoms are a necessary condition for the sustainable future prosperity of China and its citizens. You can only go so far with just lifting people out of poverty. The low-hanging fruit has been picked. After satisfying basic needs and providing modern conveniences, a more affluent society has the luxury of time to wonder why their municipal, provincial and state authorities are so unaccountable and corruptible, and why the state still intervenes so much in their affairs.

In Hong Kong, at least until 2047, we are privileged with all of these freedoms except the right to elect our own leadership. We can debate public policies freely, we can rely on the courts for a fair hearing, and any rare corruption of officials is quickly rooted out. It is only policy-making itself which remains beyond the reach of HK citizens who are denied a ballot box. That in itself leads to social discontent and sub-optimal policy choices, but imagine how much worse it would be without the ability to publicly criticise and debate the policies.

We have a sneaking suspicion that beneath the party-line exterior of Wen Jiabao, there is a reformist in him seeking to break out. His time as a leader expires in Mar-2013, possibly too soon to overcome the hardliners in the politburo, but one of his successors may put his words into action, and bring China into an open-society era. Don't forget, the Nobel Peace Prize has not always gone to dissidents. In 1993, Nelson Mandela was not the only recipient - he was joined by reformist South African President F.W. de Klerk, who paved the road to the abolition of apartheid, and in 1990, the prize went to reformist Mikhail Gorbachev, President of the Soviet Union, for his role in ending the Cold War and opening up the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc. The next time a Nobel Peace Prize is awarded to a Chinese citizen, it may go to a leader, not a dissident.

Webb-site.com, 2010

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