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Beijing marches straight through global criticism

Death of Liu Xiaobo devastating to democracy movement

BANGKOK/BEIJING -- The death of Liu Xiaobo -- a poet, a pro-democracy activist, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner and perhaps the most bothersome thorn in Beijing's increasingly Teflon hide -- has stirred global criticism of China. Beijing, though, has gained so much economic and political clout that it can disregard any and all dissent.

"I hope people will remember how the Chinese Communist Party tortured [Liu] Xiaobo to death with cruel means," Wang Dan, a prominent student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown now residing in Taiwan said on Facebook. "This is a second June 4, and it is an undisguised political murder."

Wang condemned the ruling Chinese Communist Party and drew a parallel to the political movement that he fought along with Liu Xiaobo 28 years ago, which ended in a bloody military crackdown on June 4, 1989.

His Tiananmen compatriot, Wu'er Kaixi also went to Facebook. "They killed him," he wrote, "in broad daylight."

Liu was only the second Nobel Peace Prize winner to die in prison. The first, Carl von Ossietzky, was imprisoned by Nazi Germany and died from tuberculosis in 1938.

Berit Reiss-Andersen, chairperson of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, issued a statement. "The Chinese Government bears a heavy responsibility for his premature death," she said.

In this screenshot, Liu Xiaobo was interviewed by AP Video at home in Beijing in January 2008.   © AP Video via AP

While Liu's prize remains uncollected, Beijing has been marching forward. The country's economic growth has allowed it to neglect democracy and socio-political liberalization. Over the past few decades, China has come to understand quite well how it is able to pressure the rest of the world -- not the other way around.

Any leader at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg last week could have discussed Liu Xiaobo's deteriorating health or China's human rights situation. But, at least according to the record, nobody did -- not even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had offered to let Liu be treated in Germany.

As they have in recent years, the leaders likely decided against antagonizing China.

Back in 1989, when tanks rolled into the center of Beijing and killed many unarmed citizens and students peacefully protesting for democracy and against corruption, the global community, led by the G-7 countries, took the initiative in imposing various sanctions on China.

It was a different story in 2010, when Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel. China took a symbolic leap that year, surpassing Japan as the world's second-largest economy, and an emboldened Beijing openly feuded with Norway, insisting Liu Xiaobo was a criminal and that honoring him ran counter to the spirit of the prize.

Beijing also urged other countries to boycott the award ceremony, suggesting "consequences" for those that did otherwise.

China remains hostile to those who defy the nation, making it more difficult for democracy activists in the country to receive international support.

Beijing found Norway's pressure point and leaned into it. Although the Nobel Committee is independent from the Norwegian government, China imposed sanctions against the Scandinavian country.

One target was the salmon business. According to Norwegian government data, total exports of whole salmon fell from over 1 million kg in December 2010 to around 315,000kg in January 2011 and to 75,000kg in February.

After six years of ongoing pressure, Oslo yielded to Beijing. On Dec. 19, 2016, Norwegian Foreign Minister Borge Brende made an unannounced visit to the city to firmly shake hands with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, to mark the normalization of bilateral relations.

The rapprochement came at a cost to Oslo in terms of its reputation as a human rights defender and promoter of democratic values -- a role it has claimed and nurtured for decades.

The joint statement with Beijing acknowledges the deterioration in the bilateral relationship to be based solely on "the Nobel Peace Prize award and events connected to the prize." It adds that the "Norwegian side is fully conscious of the position and concerns of the Chinese side, and has worked actively to bring the bilateral relations back to the right track."

It goes on to state that Oslo "fully respects China's development path and social system," and praises the "historic and unparalleled development that has taken place" in China. Norway also reiterated "its commitment to the one-China policy." There is no mention of human rights and democratic principles, which, according to Oslo's official government website, are "at the heart of Norwegian foreign policy."

Wang said that his Norwegian counterpart had gone through "profound self-examination on the cause of ruining mutual trust," according to his ministry's website.

As a sign that relations have fully recovered, Prime Minister Erna Solberg led a delegation on an official visit to China in early April. The main purpose was to meet Chinese leaders, mend fences and renew political and economic cooperation.

It is not fair to single out Norway. "Other countries did not speak up for Norway and finally what happened was Norway, in a way ... surrendered to the Chinese bully," Lee Cheuk-yan, a veteran human rights activist in Hong Kong told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Indeed, Western leaders have been guarded in their comments on Liu Xiaobo's death.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson issued a statement saying "Liu Xiaobo should have been allowed to choose his own medical treatment overseas, which the Chinese authorities repeatedly denied him. This was wrong and I now urge them to lift all restrictions on his widow, Liu Xia."

Johnson points out that Beijing did not allow Liu Xiaobo to go abroad to receive medical treatment but says little else before calling for the house arrest of Liu Xia to be lifted.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's statement, issued earlier, had a similar touch. He praised Liu Xiaobo for "his fight for freedom, equality, and constitutional rule in China. ... Liu Xiaobo embodied the human spirit that the Nobel Prize rewards." But he pointed no critical words at Beijing. He, too, called "on the Chinese government to release Liu Xia from house arrest and allow her to depart China, according to her wishes."

Liu Xia's treatment is another serious concern -- one that no major western government dare confront China directly on.

Liu Xiaobo's death is a heavy blow to China's pro-democracy movement, already so vulnerable amid ever-rising government pressure, especially under President Xi Jinping. Liu Xiaobo was widely respected at home and abroad for his continued campaign for change in China, even after many other activists fled the country following the Tiananmen Square massacre.

But 28 years after the crackdown, most youths in China have never even heard of Liu. The country has defied historical precedents by growing more authoritarian, not democratic, as its economy develops. Should Liu Xiaobo's death curtail global interest in China's human rights situation and move the country further away from democratization, the world could suffer.

"Liu Xiaobo's death is devastating," said Frances Eve, a Hong Kong-based researcher with the Chinese Human Rights Defenders. "He was a symbol for the struggle for universal human rights, democracy and rule of law in China. His death is a blow to the movement.

"It is essential that democratic leaders speak loudly and forcefully that the Chinese government unconditionally frees his wife, Liu Xia, from the illegal restrictions on her and allows her to leave the country, if she chooses."

China, however, remains in reiteration mode: "Respect China's judicial sovereignty," it commands. "Do not interfere in China's internal affairs using individual cases."

These words can be heard over and over during Chinese Foreign Ministry press briefings, though they do not appear on the ministry's official website.

Nikkei staff writer Debby Wu in Taipei contributed to this report. 

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