Paul Lau (Hong Kong, UWCAC 10-12)
Many have hailed the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award Liu Xiaobo of China the Nobel Peace prize for 2010 as a massive step for democracy in China. A brave and daring move that should be recognized and treasured above anything else. Others interpret the move as a further evidence of Western liberal democracies meddling in ‘internal’ affairs. Some have gone as far as to call it modern colonialism and a blatant attempt at enforcing western ideals on China. Not only do these statements dwell upon insignificant details, they simply couldn’t be further from the truth.
Certainly the award was an important milestone, but it was far from a solitary act that was alone in standing up to government tanks. In fact, the need for greater political freedom and democracy in China has been a call echoed from the ordinary civilians right through to the top brass of the political machine.
A recent New York Times ‘news analysis’ called the prize a sharp rejoinder to the philosophy that “freedom of speech, multiparty elections and constitutional rights — what some human rights advocates call universal values — are indigenous to the West, and that is where they should stay.” Ironically, that was the very opposite to the philosophy put forward by Premier Wen Jiabao who said, while in Shenzhen in southern China, “along with economic reform, we must keep doing political reform”. The position that political reform had to go along with economic reforms was one Wen had talked about as early as 2008 in interviews with foreign media.
Admittedly, this view, along with Wen’s statement in a CNN interview with Fareed Zakaria that “I believe freedom of speech is indispensable, for any country. Freedom of speech has been incorporated into the Chinese constitution” was ‘harmonized’, the China’s euphemism for censorship. But before foreigners pour scorn onto this act, think back just 10 years. Not only would such a statement almost certainly have been censored harmonized, it would almost certainly not have been made in the first place, and certainly not by such a high-ranking official as the premier. That Wen Jiabao went as far as to make the call for more political freedom in a speech to the UN General Assembly on September 23 this month goes to show just how seriously the issue is being taken.
Lower down the pecking order, a group of 23 former high-ranking political and cultural officials published a rare but strongly worded open letter to the National People’s Congress demanding less censorship harmonization. The open letter which was posted online said that although freedom of speech was constitutionally guaranteed, it was constrained by a host of laws and regulations that should be scrapped. “This kind of false democracy of affirming in principle and denying in actuality is a scandal in the history of democracy,” said the letter. Wang Yongcheng, a retired professor at Shanghai’s Jiaotong University was one of the signatories saying “We want to spur action toward governing the country according to law”. Li Rui, former secretary to Mao Zedong and other retired high officials in state media and propaganda were signatories, turning around to criticize the system that they ironically, previously ran.
Mao Yushi, a veteran economist who was a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and currently head of the Beijing based Unirule Institute of Economics, put forward the view that “Political reform will come, sooner or later. We know there is also debate within the regime as to what to do. Which opinion will gain the upper hand is still hard to predict, but whatever happens it is hard to change the general direction.” President Hu Jintao has talked of the need for political reform, as has Premier Wen Jiabao.
Of course, such a gigantic task will not be easy, nor will it occur in a short space of time. They will, at the end of the day, have to come from within and fall within “the constitution and the laws”. The demand for political freedom is far from modern western colonization, but foreign governments and international organizations would be well advised to continue supporting democratization in moral and diplomatic levels or through official channels. After all, though symbolic gestures are commendable, far more is achieved through quite nudging than reaching for the panic button.
Nevertheless, the movement for Democracy and Political Freedom is moving forward in China, from the inside and from outside. It will inevitably occur whether we like it or not, albeit not always at our desired speed. But at this crucial junction, as China ascends in the international arena, it is not the time to worry about the petty details of how we reach the ultimate goal. Now is the time to stop whining and to look for ways to help move the process forward.
As Premier Wen articulately said “it is the people and the strength of the people who determine the future of the country and history. The wish and will of the people are not stoppable.” For that, I am hopeful that China’s political future will be a bright one, albeit with many bumps along the road.
-United World Colleges Student Magazine-