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Advancing a peaceful transition to democracy in China through truth, understanding, citizen power, & cooperative action

The Significance of Liu Xiaobo for China’s Democracy

Opening Statement at the Dec.12, 2012 CECC Hearing on Liu Xiaobo

By YANG Jianli

Congressman Smith and Senator Brown:

Thank you for hosting this important hearing.

Liu Xiaobo and his wife’s plight and the Chinese reactions to his winning the Nobel Peace Prize and the mounting international outcry for the couple’s freedom are well known and I won’t repeat these facts today. Instead, I want to focus on the significance of Liu Xiaobo for democracy in China.

Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel honor indicates the international recognition of the Chinese democracy movement represented by him. He has become the symbol of democracy in China. Simply because of such a symbolism, his continued imprisonment presents itself as a footnote to the vow made by Hu Jintao in his political report at the recent Party’s 18th Congress that China’s leadership would “never take the evil road of changing flags and banners” – code for abandoning one-party rule. This pledge dispelled any doubts about the party’s resolve to keep its political monopoly.

But we must remember the CCP does not have the only say about China’s future. Liu Xiaobo represents another force that will also help shape the future of China, pushing China to take an alternative road, “the evil road” in the minds of China’s leaders perhaps. And, this force is becoming increasingly viable.

The most important sign is the recent intellectual awakening evidenced by the return of the democracy debate, which has occupied a central place in the public discourse around China’s leadership change. More and more intellectuals, who were generally co-opted by the regime not long after Tiananmen and acted as its defenders for many years, have come to realize and acknowledge the value of Liu Xiaobo and his ideas and beliefs which are embodied in Charter 08. The intellectual recognition that the status quo is unsustainable is always the first and vital step towards changing it.

The intellectual’s renewed demand for democracy is at least in part based on the understanding of the reality of China’s state crony capitalism. This state crony capitalism has sustained a long period of high-speed economic growth, which has become almost the only source of legitimacy for the CCP’s rule. However, such an economic system has carried with it an incalculable cost in the form of human rights abuse, environmental deterioration, and morality collapse. It has become insolvable.

Another two important factors helping lead to a democratic change in an autocratic country, a robust plurality of disaffected citizens and splits in the leadership, are coming together in China.

Since the Tiananmen massacre, corruption has become one of the CCP’s important strategies for survival, because no party officials at any level would be loyal to the regime if they were not given the privilege to corrupt. Such a predatory regime has caused unprecedented infringement of the basic rights of the ordinary people, resulting in increasingly frequent protests. At present, there are on average more than 500 protests EVERY DAY that involve over 100 protesters. That’s one every three minutes. In order to keep these self-motivated protests from becoming a conscious pro-democracy movement demanding an overall change, the Chinese government has built a monstrous “stability sustaining system” which has an operating budget exceeding China’s national defense budget. This gigantic SSS treat every citizen as a potential enemy and has successfully made them enemies: dissidents, independent intellectuals, landless peasants, victims of forced demolition and eviction, victims of forced abortion, veterans, migrant workers, Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongols, Christians, Falun Gong prationers — you name it.

Perhaps the only achievement in China’s political system in the past 30 years is the establishment of “two term-ten years-one generation” term-limit system. Many observers stipulate that such a system will ensure long-term stability for the CCP regime, because they wishfully believe that this system has helped the CCP find a way out of the pit of power discontinuity that has plagued all dictatorships in the history. The Bo Xilai event, however, mercilessly burst such a bubble. People within the Party have begun to challenge this power succession system. The cracks can only be widening.

As non-governmental forces grow and civil protests escalate, the struggle for power among different factions within the regime will become more pronounced. Once external pressures reach a critical mass, rival factions within the regime will have no choice but take the voices of the citizens seriously and seek their support to survive.

That said, we cannot forget that we still need an overall, viable pro-democracy movement to force the one-party dictatorship to crack open. A long-term resilient movement will reach critical mass when idealists like Liu Xiaobo join force with self-motivated members of the public who are disaffected with the status quo. One of the milestones would be the formation of group civil leaders who are able to represent the general public, to at least partially disrupt the current political order, to catch the attention and support of the international community, and to carry out (and call off) effective negotiations with the government. What happened in Guangdong’s Wukan village a year ago is a good example.

Liu Xiaobo, as a widely accepted leader both at home and abroad, will surely play a unique role in forming such a group, which was most needed but lacking in our 1989 Tiananmen movement.

Therefore, working toward his freedom is vital for a democratic change in China. I am particularly encouraged by the strong support for Liu Xiaobo and Charter 08 from world human rights leaders and activists. Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in November of 2010. For the first time, there is hope for reform in Burma. In seeking Liu’s release, we hope and struggle for the same in China.

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