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Chinese dissident's Peace Prize honors all such activists

Saturday, October 9, 2010; A14

FOR LIU XIAOBO, the Nobel Peace Prize awarded Friday will not be a get-out-of-jail-free card. Just ask Aung San Suu Kyi, the only other Nobel Peace Prize laureate in confinement. She was under house arrest when she won the prize in 1991 for her nonviolent leadership of Burma's democracy movement, and she remains under house arrest today.

But the prize has enormous significance nonetheless. It should, first, inspire Western democracies to stand up to Chinese bullying, notwithstanding the growing economic power of the world's most populous nation. Chinese officials warned Norway and the prize committee not to give the award to Mr. Liu, but the committee didn't allow itself to be intimidated.

The prize also reminds the world of the "close connection between human rights and peace," as the Nobel Committee said in its statement. In the past three decades, the communist rulers of China have relaxed their grip on the personal and economic lives of their 1.3 billion citizens, and the result has been explosive growth. More people have hauled themselves out of poverty in China in that time span than ever before in history -- a huge achievement.

But China remains fragile at home and potentially dangerous to its neighbors because the communists have not simultaneously relaxed their grip on power. Mr. Liu is serving an 11-year sentence far from his home and his wife because he helped write Charter 08, a manifesto calling for democratic change: for meaningful elections, an independent judiciary, the rule of law. Even the peaceful advocacy of such change is, according to China, "inciting subversion of state power." Because the rulers have stifled patriotic dissidents such as Mr. Liu, they live in fear of more violent uprisings from those who feel left out of China's march to prosperity and who are permitted no legal way to express their view. The regime spotlighted its fear when it pulled the plug on international television broadcasts in China as soon as the prize was announced Friday.

The refusal of China's leaders to subject themselves to law at home reinforces suspicions that it will not play by the rules abroad, either -- not in trade, or finance, or respect for other nations' sovereignty. China's embrace of democracy wouldn't guarantee peace with democratic neighbors such as South Korea and Japan, but it would make peaceful settlement of disputes more likely. A democratic China would be less likely to send North Korean refugees back to likely execution in their homeland, in violation of international treaties. A regime confident in its legitimacy would be less likely to whip up nationalist fervor against Japan or the United States to distract from its own failings. And a democracy could not turn such fervor on and off at will through total control of its media.

Most of all, though, the award to Mr. Liu is a tribute to the courage of people around the world who refuse to let dictatorships crush their spirit -- not just Aung San Suu Kyi, but 2,000 other political prisoners in Burma; not just Mr. Liu, but 8,000 brave Chinese who put their signatures below his on Charter 08. Most of them will never become famous. Most will never win an award. Yet they risk all because they want to live in freedom or make it more likely that their children will do so. Mr. Liu's prize is their prize, too.

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