Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. (Associated Press)
Former editorial page editor

As you read about Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who died in Chinese captivity Thursday, ask yourself this: Why are his jailers — President Xi Jinping and the rest of China’s Communist regime — so afraid?

I wonder about that question sometimes when I think of another of their captives, someone you are less likely to have heard of, a man named Wang Bingzhang.

Wang is, at this point, one of China’s longest-serving political prisoners. He is 69 years old and in poor health. He has been locked up since 2002, when Chinese agents kidnapped him from Vietnam, hauled him across the border, kept him incommunicado for six months and then sentenced him, in a one-day, closed-door “trial” held without notice to family or friends, to life in prison.

Wang’s crime? Like Liu, he had campaigned, peacefully, for democracy in China. He had argued that freedom is not a “Western” value but a desire and a right of all human beings.

For that, he, like Liu, had to be locked away and prevented from communicating with the world. As with Liu, whose wife, Liu Xia, has been subjected to a tormenting, bullying, isolating house arrest though she has never been charged with any crime, Wang’s family must be made to suffer. His daughter Ti-Anna Wang, who is Canadian and a friend of mine, has not been permitted to visit her father since she published an op-ed in The Post urging his release 8½ years ago.

(The Washington Post)

Why are they so afraid?

Why would they keep Liu Xiaobo in his cell until his cancer was so advanced that he was near death — and then keep him from traveling abroad, where he might yet have gotten care? Why would they keep Wang from spending his last years with his children and grandchildren?

What fear could motivate such cruelty?

The answer, I believe, has something to do with the story China’s rulers tell their people, and maybe themselves, to cling to power.

The story, it’s important to note, is partly true: The regime has, in the past quarter-century, presided over steady economic growth that has brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and into the middle class. On its scale, it is a unique achievement in human history.

But their story is also, in many respects, false. Far from being selfless patriots, the ruling elite has grown fat off the state. They do not want Chinese people reading about their overseas bank accounts or their children attending elite foreign prep schools and universities.

Far from being an alien Western import, democracy has proved to be a universal aspiration that has been embraced successfully in Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and — most dangerously for Beijing — Taiwan.

Far from delivering continuous progress for an ever-happier nation, the regime since 1949 has intermittently plunged China into disastrous famines and spasms of internecine violence that have cost tens of millions of lives. Today it must employ tens of thousands of censors and lock away hundreds of lawyers, journalists and religious believers to maintain the facade of universal acclaim.

Perhaps most perilously, the Communist Party rules over a population that no longer believes in communism. The regime’s only remaining justification is that it delivers economic growth. Yet, as the economy becomes more complex, growth becomes more and more dependent on people being free to think, read, challenge and compete. The regime is caught in this paradox — and afraid.

“Any government that jails its own people for political dissent still has a long way to go to become a respected member of the international community,” Ti-Anna Wang wrote in that 2009 op-ed.

On some level, the regime must understand that. If it enjoyed international respect, it would not have to browbeat and bully other governments not to meet with the Dalai Lama and other peaceful critics.

And China’s leaders must understand that the same logic applies at home: If they enjoyed the respect of their own people, they would not have to shut down every blogger, newspaper and website that expressed an opinion contrary to the party line. They would not have to keep Liu Xiaobo from traveling to Norway to pick up his Nobel Prize. They would not have to lock up 69-year-old Wang Bingzhang to keep him from extolling the virtues of democracy.

On some level, Xi and his colleagues must know that Liu and Wang are right and they are wrong. Clearly they fear that their people will come to that realization. Maybe they are also afraid to admit it to themselves.

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