Andrei Sakharov, Nelson Mandela, Václav Havel, Lech Walesa: in the 1980s, these men were household names, winners of extraordinary victories against bestial tyrannies. Western politicians and intellectuals supported and encouraged them, and our solidarity contributed to the liberation of hundreds of millions of human beings whom certain relativists had considered ineligible for democracy (supposedly an exclusively Western cultural trait). Today, we need to remember another set of names: Wei Jingsheng, Hu Jia, and Liu Xiaobo. They are the new Havels and Mandelas, the heroic agents of a future dignity now denied to 1 billion of their fellow Chinese, men and women seeking the same rights that we enjoy.

Wei Jingsheng lives in exile in the United States after spending ten years in prison for having publicly aspired to what’s known in China as “the fifth modernization”—democracy. Hu Jia is currently incarcerated in a Beijing prison, where he is worn down by illness, without medical care, and surrounded by common criminals. His crime: denouncing the relegation of AIDS patients to the province of Henan and the corrupt bureaucrats who profited from the sale of medications donated to China by humanitarian organizations. In December 2009, Liu Xiabo—the primary author of Charter 08, which he published on the Internet and which demands the establishment of the rule of law in China—was sentenced to 11 years in prison, incarcerated in a temporary detention center in Beijing, and forbidden to read, write, or communicate with his lawyer or with his wife.

These three figures incarnate the aspiration of Chinese society to political and moral dignity, an aspiration that is as old as Chinese civilization. Wei Jingsheng’s crime recalls Sun Yat-sen, who in 1911, after exile in Great Britain, returned to China to proclaim a republic against the Qing Dynasty, China’s last imperial dynasty. He was elected president the following year, long before many European monarchies took the same path. Liu Xiaobo, for his part, is steeped in Chinese thought as well as in Enlightenment philosophy, with which Chinese intellectuals have been acquainted for at least two centuries. Hu Jia is a fervent Buddhist who reminds us that compassion and virtue are also timeless elements of Chinese civilization.

These three, and the Chinese people as a whole, recognize themselves in these verses of Lao-Tse, more than 20 centuries old: “Worthy of the respect of the people are those content with a calm and frugal life.” Frugality is what is most lacking in a Communist oligarchy, in bureaucratic dynasties that divide up power and money. China’s new class of the superrich exploits the labor of 800 million poor peasants (in a country of 1.4 billion). Thus the economic misery and moral destitution of a people often deprived of schools and of basic medical care, as well as of religious freedom, except when they confine themselves to places of worship run by the Communist Party.

We must not imagine for a moment that the Chinese people are satisfied with this fate or hypnotized by Party propaganda that proclaims a new golden age. With wide access to the Internet and to cell phones, humble villagers keep watch on the brutal misdeeds of the superrich and of local bureaucrats. Everyone knows, for example, that after the 2008 earthquake in the province of Sichuan, where thousands of children died in the rubble of hastily built schools, bureaucrats used funds intended for reconstruction to buy themselves luxury cars. If Wei Jingsheng “means nothing,” as an official told me in Beijing, then why does the party jam his radio addresses, which the Voice of America broadcasts? If Liu Xiaobo is merely “intoxicated by foreign ideas,” as I was told, again officially, then why did 10,000 people sign his Charter 08 on the Internet in the 24 hours before he was incarcerated? If the Chinese government really is concerned with the ravages of AIDS, as it claims, then why is Hu Jia, the first to call attention to the epidemic, imprisoned for having “threatened State security”?

The new China seduces us with the Olympic Games in Beijing and with “Expo 2010,” a world’s fair currently taking place in Shanghai. But when we look behind the stage curtain, we see a nation divided in two. There are the rich, who consist of Communist bureaucrats and military brass. And then there are the ordinary people, who show themselves to be well-informed and ready to rebel against the Party and its clients. Peasants rise up to overthrow local potentates; workers demand decent salaries; migrants, who work in factories or building construction, refuse to be driven back to their villages (where there is no work) at the whim of the Party; some courageous journalists denounce corrupt officials; Taoists, Buddhists, and Christians organize in groups to pray or to offer charitable services; university scholars call for democracy, or at least decency, from leaders, and for social equity. Between these two social classes there is, to be sure, a hesitant new middle class, but inflation is wearing it down and a real estate bubble will, sooner or later, bring it to ruin.

While they cannot be unaware of this awakening of civil society, the Communist leaders’ conduct has proven to be totally determined by material interests. Power is too profitable—in the form of privileged holdings in real estate or industry—for them to exercise it with restraint. Worse, the Party is becoming more rigid and arrogant. It refrained from imprisoning Hu Jia and Liu Xiaobo only until the 2008 Olympics were over. Then, once a Western boycott had been avoided—and the West had clearly demonstrated its indifference to human rights—they were put away.

Similarly, since gaining admission to the World Trade Organization in 2001, China has shown less and less respect for international rules. It has imprisoned employees of foreign business enterprises—like Xue Feng, a Chinese-born American geologist sentenced on July 5 to eight years in jail for purchasing a publicly available database on China’s oil industry. It has violated international legal norms—failing to respect intellectual property, enforcing protectionism, and shunning competitive bidding for business contracts. Since it won recognition as a great power, a status it deserves, China has not contributed to global harmony. For instance, it recently refused to sign off on United Nations sanctions against North Korea for the sinking of a South Korean ship.

Westerners often ask whether the Party is still Communist. Some invoke the strange oxymoron “state capitalism.” Liu Xia, who knows the regime from the inside, finds fascism a more appropriate reference point: rule under a single party that allies itself with capital and disdains culture. “We democrats,” Liu Xia writes, “are like the Jews in Nazi Germany. We are exterminated in the face of general Western indifference. You will wake up when we are gone.”

We must listen to Liu Xia and deal with the Chinese regime as we once dealt with the Soviet Union. We didn’t confuse the Russian people with the Soviet Communist Party; we did business with the USSR because trade benefited the Russian people; we supported Soviet dissidents because they embodied Russia’s enduring soul and its future. In the same way, let us realize that the Chinese people are not to be confused with the Chinese Communist Party. Let us recognize that Liu Xiaobo, Hu Jia, and Wei Jingsheng represent the dignity and the honor of China—and, we may hope, its future.

At the same time, let us be humble: Chinese history obeys no necessity, and certainly not the dictates of the West. It’s possible that China will progress at its own pace, according to laws foreign to us. Mao Yushi, an eminent economist and dissident who is free but under surveillance, tells me he estimates the number of direct victims of the Chinese Communist Party—from civil war, executions, and organized famine—at 50 million, dating from the revolution of 1949 to the 1979 reforms. Since 1979, Year One of the reforms, Mao Yushi counts 200,000 victims of the regime, from executions, repression, and prison deaths. Fallen Party leaders now retire; they are no longer assassinated. Add to this the uncontested benefits of economic growth, which lengthens life expectancy, and we can grant Mao Yushi’s macabre calculation that China is, in fact, making progress.

That doesn’t mean, though, that we should turn a blind eye to China’s atrocities. The wives of both Liu Xiabo and Hu Jia have implored us to press the Chinese authorities to respect human rights. From the moment these heroes asked for our help, we Westerners have had no right to refuse it. Our duty is to accuse Liu Xiaobo’s and Hu Jia’s jailers; if we keep silent, we are cowards.


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