Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, on sabbatical from Foreign Policy Magazine.
When the imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, Beijing found itself subject to an uncomfortable historical comparison. The last Nobel Peace Prize recipient whose government barred them or their family from attending the ceremony was 1935’s winner Carl von Ossietzky, a German pacifist languishing in a concentration camp. One Nazi newspaper at the time warned the Nobel Committee “not to provoke the German people by rewarding this traitor to our nation.” After Liu, who was serving an 11-year prison sentence on trumped-up charges of subversion, won the prize, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called the decision a “desecration” that awarded a “criminal,” and warned it would harm Norwegian-Chinese relations. China’s economic achievements have been “extraordinary,” U.S. President Barack Obama said in a statement at the time. True. But politically, it lags far behind.
Since Liu received the prize, China’s gross domestic product has nearly doubled, to roughly $11 trillion. It now vies with the United States for global economic leadership. To be sure, China’s economy still suffers from many shortcomings. But on issues relating to free trade, sustainable growth and climate change, and even the future of capitalism, China could very well soon be the world’s dominant economic force. Yet the case of Liu — and of thousands of other Chinese intellectuals, thwarted Communist Party reformers and frustrated journalists — shows just how unfit China is for global political leadership.
Monday’s announcement that Liu has been moved from prison to a hospital to be treated for late-stage liver cancer calls to mind another recent incident. In January 2016, the then 21-year-old student Otto Warmbier, who was visiting North Korea, was sentenced to 15 years at hard labor for allegedly trying to steal a propaganda poster. Sometime in 2016, and for unknown reasons, he fell into a coma. Pyongyang allowed American diplomats to return him to the United States on June 13; he died six days later.
Beijing likely released Liu for domestic reasons. If he had died in prison, he could become a martyr for China’s beleaguered human rights community. Pyongyang likely released Warmbier because U.S.-North Korea relations would have gone into a tailspin had the American died in North Korea. In personal terms, Liu, a renowned dissident who won the Peace Prize for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China,” has little in common with the young student Warmbier. Rather, the similarity lies with the governments. Beijing, like its horrifically oppressive neighbor to the east, imprisoned a man unjustly — and then released him at the last minute, to spare itself the embarrassment of seeing him dying in prison.
Many foreign policy experts believe that the United States has been relinquishing its global leadership role in the months since the election of Donald Trump as president. Inevitably, some have wondered if, and how, China will fill that void. Soon after Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership in January, Beijing stepped up efforts to implement its One Belt, One Road trade strategy, which seeks to economically connect China with nations around the world. Especially after Trump announced his decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accords in early June, international affairs commentators began increasingly wondering if China, and not the United States, was now the responsible global power.
Liu’s release and imprisonment demonstrate a crucial point in understanding China’s role in the world today: the difference between its economy and its political system. Economically, China remains ascendant. By some measures, its economy is roughly 20 percent larger than that of the United States. But on issues involving politics — the ability of China’s government to serve as a beacon to other nations, for example — China belongs to a category closer to North Korea and Nazi Germany than to Norway or the Netherlands.
In 1936, the Nazis offered von Ossietzky medical parole, and transferred him to a hospital, where he remained under Gestapo supervision. In a sad 1937 interview with Time Magazine, a “hollow-eyed and pale” von Ossietzky commended the Nazis, and “gave a buttery account of the gracious, paternal fashion in which the Government [sic] had looked after him.” He died of tuberculosis in May 1938. We all know what happened next.
“Where is China headed in the twenty-first century?” Liu and his co-writers asked in Charter 08, the political manifesto that likely led to Liu’s arrest. “Will it continue with ‘modernization’ under authoritarian rule, or will it embrace universal human values, join the mainstream of civilized nations, and build a democratic system?” Economically, China may soon lead “civilized nations.” Politically, Liu’s version looks further and further away.