Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo's fate reflects fading pressure on China over human rights

Pro-democracy activists mourn the death of Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, outside China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy activists mourn the death of Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, outside China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong.PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - Mr Liu Xiaobo, China's only Nobel Peace laureate, catapulted to fame in 1989, when the Communist Party's violent crackdown on protests in Tiananmen Square created an international uproar.

Now, nearly three decades later, Mr Liu has died of cancer while in state custody, a bedridden and silenced example of Western governments' inability, or reluctance, to push back against China's resurgent authoritarians.

Mr Liu's fate reflects how human rights issues have receded in Western diplomacy with China. And it shows how Chinese Communist Party leaders, running a strong state bristling with security powers, can disdain foreign pleas, even for a man near death.

"It's certainly become more difficult," said Mr John Kamm, an American businessman and founder of the Dui Hua Foundation, who for decades has quietly lobbied China to free or improve the treatment of political prisoners.

He said his attempts to win approval for Mr Liu to leave China for treatment, as Mr Liu and his wife requested, got nowhere.

"I tried my best. I did everything I could," he said before Mr Liu's death on Thursday (July 13). "Things are pretty difficult right now. It's hard for me to get the kinds of responses I need."

These days, major Western governments struggle to get responses from China about prisoners and conditions in Tibet and Xinjiang.

Many Western politicians have also become less willing to dwell on human rights problems when other issues - North Korea, trade and investment, terrorism, climate change, cyber security - fill their meetings with Chinese officials, said rights advocates and experts.

The United States, Germany and other Western governments did politely prod China to release Mr Liu from prison and let him go abroad for treatment of his liver cancer, accompanied by his wife Liu Xia.

A spokesman for Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a statement that "she would like a signal of humanity for Liu Xiaobo and his family", while US President Donald Trump said nothing publicly about his case, leaving any comment to lower-ranking officials.

Dr Merkel's statement was a reflection of how the world order has shifted, with the US under Mr Trump departing from its traditional role as the most vocal advocate of human rights.

Still, Mr Kamm and others said the shift came many years before Mr Trump entered the White House in January.

"I do not think that the world prior to Jan 20, 2017, was one rife with robust, consistent diplomatic intervention on behalf of peaceful, independent civil society in China," said Ms Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch.

"Taken together, particularly over the 2000s and into the 2010s, you have got progressively less interest on foreign governments in really fighting as hard as they ought to have for systemic change in China."

In Mr Liu's case, Chinese officials have dismissed calls by Western governments as meddling.

Beijing issued video and still images of Mr Liu in a hospital in north-east China, as if to say: We don't need lectures about how to take care of our prisoners.

Beijing ignored advice from a German and an American cancer specialist who visited Mr Liu, at its invitation, and who said he was well enough to travel for treatment.

"If Xiaobo, a Nobel Peace laureate, was able to win some freedom for half a month - or two weeks or four days or half a day - and could speak out after eight years of silence, that would be intolerable for the government," said writer Wu Yangwei, who uses the pen name Ye Du and is a friend of Mr Liu's.

"Ten years ago, it might have been different, there might have been a little hope. But the political atmosphere has shifted."

Lobbying China over its harsh prison sentences for dissent and its other shackles on citizens' rights has never been an amicable conversation; progress has long been spotty.

But Mr Liu's case reflects how Western pressure on China's human rights problems has decreased, while Chinese leaders have become adept at using economic and diplomatic lures and threats to thwart it.

"China has never made major concessions to foreign pressure on human rights, but especially in the few years after Tiananmen, they did make minor concessions," said Dr Andrew Nathan, a professor of political science at Columbia University who studies China and has written about its human rights diplomacy.

"But things have changed, China is rich, and the Western powers one by one have given up officially receiving the Dalai Lama and sponsoring resolutions in Geneva that are critical of China," he added, referring to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

There were exceptions, he said. "But in general, Beijing now simply pays no mind to foreign pressure."

It did not seem so clear cut when Mr Liu was detained for nearly two years in 1989, after the Chinese government called him a "black hand" who supported the student demonstrators who crowded Tiananmen Square before an armed crackdown.

Back then, Communist Party leaders railed against Western-inspired subversion and imprisoned leading participants in the protests who had not fled.

Yet, China was more vulnerable to pressure, and sometimes made concessions.

It was the world's ninth-biggest economy in 1989, and needed expertise, investment and technology from advanced countries to begin growing again.

It did not have a wide circle of countries that would help it thwart Western sanctions and isolation. And the party general secretary and later China's president, Mr Jiang Zemin, appeared eager for affirmation and even friendship from president Bill Clinton and other Western leaders.

But since China joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001 and its economy took off, leaders in Beijing have become increasingly set against making concessions on human rights cases.

That posture has reflected China's economic and diplomatic strength. But it has also reflected leaders' long-standing fears that, even with robust growth, broad public support and a powerful police apparatus, they are vulnerable to political foes.

"Because the leaders are so politically insecure and the security bureaucracies so powerful, the foreign ministry diplomats can't get any compromise except under extraordinary circumstances," said Dr Susan Shirk, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego, who was deputy assistant secretary of state for policy towards China in the Clinton administration.

From 1989 to 2008, when Mr Liu helped launch Charter 08, a petition for democratic change, he and other dissenters still hoped that the Communist Party could be coaxed to give citizens greater freedoms, pushed by civic mobilisation in China and encouraged by Western governments and groups.

Even if there were occasional setbacks, many believed expanding market forces and a growing middle class would shape history in their direction and would make the government ultimately accept political liberalisation.

"China's economy is growing quickly, and this economic development is supportive of a political transformation," Mr Liu said in an interview in 2004. "China's international environment has seen big changes, and there'd be very strong international support for its political reforms."

But Mr Liu was arrested in 2008 and sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009.

China's President since 2012, Mr Xi Jinping, has overseen an even more comprehensive crackdown on dissent, rights lawyers and independent civil groups.

Mr Liu's supporters have not abandoned their hopes, but they see that the government has gained confidence against critics.

Mr Kamm of the Dui Hua Foundation said he would continue to present lists of political prisoners to Chinese officials. Now he also plans to point out how the government's treatment of Mr Liu hurt China's image, he said.

"I think they have taken an incredible hit on this," Mr Kamm said. "There are five prisoners on my list tonight that I will use this to try to get out of prison into their loved ones' arms."