Europe is preparing to welcome President Trump with demonstrations during the Group of 20 meetings in Hamburg this week but few, if any, on that continent seem interested in protesting the visit of another strongman, Xi Jinping of China, and the treatment being meted out to Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo.
The Chinese announced on June 26 that Liu is suffering from late-stage liver cancer and that they had assembled a team of Chinese doctors to treat him. On Wednesday, Beijing said that authorities had invited Western cancer experts to come to China to treat him, but so far they have denied the request of Liu’s family to let him and his wife, Liu Xia, leave China to seek help abroad.
Chinese state security agents arrested Liu in December 2008 after he co-authored a document asking for more freedom. On Christmas Day 2009, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for the crime of “inciting subversion of state power.” This was his fourth stint in jail, all for political crimes, and in 2010 Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway. At the ceremony that year in Oslo, an empty chair was placed in a tribute to his courage.
China began punishing Norway almost immediately. I remember listening in dismay at a private meeting with a senior Chinese government official in Washington in late 2010 who insisted that Liu was a “common criminal” and that Liu’s prize was part of a Western scheme to “split China.” He vowed that China would “discipline” the Norwegian government for what he called the “plots” of the Nobel Prize committee. China’s government cancelled contracts with Norwegian firms and imports of Norwegian salmon to China were cut off.
China kept relations with Norway on ice until last Christmas, six years after it had sentenced Liu Xiaobo, and its pressure worked. Norway’s government stopped speaking about China’s human rights record, despite the fact that it’s even worse now than it was when Liu was locked up. Since the announcement that Liu has cancer, the Norwegian government of Prime Minister Erna Solberg has been silent except to say it noted the news “with sadness.”
In an editorial on July 4, the Aftenposten, Norway’s biggest daily, seemed resigned to the necessity of ignoring China’s dismal treatment of its dissidents in exchange for a chance at China’s growing market. “The problem,” the editorial said, “is that nobody knows how long this policy will last. One year? Two years? 20 years?” Or as Harald Stanghelle, a Norwegian political commentator, noted, also in the Aftenposten: “Has it really come to a point that no one dares any longer to champion dissidents’ causes, for fear of being excluded from China’s party?”
Norway is not alone in its silence. In June, at a meeting of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Greece vetoed a move to criticize the marked deterioration of human rights under Xi’s rule. The Greek Foreign Ministry in Athens had called the statement “unproductive.” China’s companies have invested tens of millions of dollars in port projects and other infrastructure in Greece. Clearly, China has bought love or at least resignation there, too. Britain, too, seems to be standing idly by as China ignores both the letter and the spirit of its agreement with Britain to preserve for 50 years Hong Kong’s system of liberties following China’s takeover of Hong Kong in 1997.
In Germany, the government of Angela Merkel, which will be hosting the meeting in Hamburg, appears less interested in criticizing China than in criticizing the Trump administration. As Merkel noted in remarks directed at the American president, “If you believe you can solve the problems of this world with isolationism and protectionism you are very wrong.”
In fact, the Germans – and the Chinese – appear to see an opportunity to draw closer together and benefit from Trump’s America first policy. “Relations between China and Germany are at their historic best,” announced Michael Clauss, Germany’s ambassador to Beijing, in a briefing with reporters in the run-up to the summit. Noted Xi, in an op-ed published Tuesday in the German daily Die Welt, “the strategic character of Chinese-German relations is steadily gaining in importance.”
I think there’s more than Chinese cash and a cynical opportunity to take America down a notch that is driving Europe’s silence on human rights. There’s also a view, more widespread in Europe than in the United States, that excuses China’s lack of freedom because the Chinese, being an Asiatic people, have no history of democracy. Obviously, this idea has some traction in America, too, often among the business set. But I’ve always been struck by how much more widespread it was among European experts on China.
I remember vividly during the Abu Ghraib torture and prison abuse scandal of 2003-2004 being lectured by a German newspaper correspondent in Beijing about how it was unconscionable of Americans — of all people — to commit such brutal acts. When the conversation turned to China, however, she was almost forgiving, telling me that people ultimately deserve the government they get.
The counter-argument is that Liu Xiaobo’s struggle for freedom is the same one that inspired the great Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov and that China also has a long and storied tradition of liberal thought for anyone interested enough to look. The names may be more difficult to pronounce, but the issues have always been the same.