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Where Oh Where is Wen Jiabao?

by Elizabeth C. Economy
November 12, 2010

Ai WeiweiSo much for Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s bold words on the need for freedom of speech and democracy. His words haven’t stopped Beijing from executing an epic human rights crackdown—which is only hurting itself at home and embarrassing itself abroad.

Chinese Foreign Ministry officials are marching around the world calling on countries to boycott the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo next month. They started in Europe, where Beijing has been spreading around billions of dollars worth of much-needed investment deals. But do China’s leaders really think that these countries are going to trade out their core principles for a yuan? Now, Beijing is banging on doors in East Asia, where they are likely to meet with even less success, except in North Korea. Particularly for Japan and South Korea, both beacons of hard-won democracy in Asia, giving in to a bullying Beijing won’t win them any points at home.

The situation within China is even more troubling. Putting aside the sad efforts to paint Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo as a criminal and agent of the West, Beijing’s crackdown on lawyers, NGO activists and public intellectuals undermines its own efforts and claims to promote political reform and good governance. In just the past two weeks, Beijing sentenced a man to prison for pressing the government to continue with research on the health care needs of children sickened in the 2008 melamine scandal; barred two lawyers, Mo Shaoping and He Weifang, from attending a legal conference on the grounds that their travel might pose a threat to national security; harassed or placed under house arrest numerous political activists and dissidents; drove an activist to close her charity for children with AIDS; and arrested a famous artist, Ai Weiwei, in order to prevent him from hosting a blow-out party in his Shanghai art studio to “celebrate” the studio’s politically-motivated destruction. Eight hundred people showed anyway.

A couple of days ago, I testified before a few members of U.S. Congress on the future of political reform in China. Congressman Sander Levin asked whether the human rights situation today was truly better than ever before. I equivocated a bit, saying that there were more opportunities today for people to express themselves but that we should compare current conditions to the mid-late-1980s—the time of Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang—to get a truly accurate assessment. In general, however, I and the other panelists agreed that things were moving in the right direction. He was not persuaded by any of us—and perhaps rightly so. Let’s face it. In 1988, Liu Xiaobo was freely studying at Columbia University. Now he sits in jail.

I can’t help wondering what Premier Wen is thinking at this moment. It is great that every few months, he calls for political reform, but where is he when his people really need him?

Photo courtesy Reuters/Carlos Barria

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by Loren Fauchier

    China is still a Leninist one-party state even if it has a market-oriented economy. Much economic success and poverty reduction. Many people are free to buy-sell most anything and get rich. But the “benevolent dictator” as some like to call the CCP still fails to implement the rule of law where property and human rights are protected. With economic growth most Chinese won’t oppose the political system but if this begins to falter then folks may change their mind who they want in power.

  • Posted by Tom

    “…do China’s leaders really think that these countries are going to trade out their core principles for a yuan?”

    It’s not really a big leap of faith for Beijing to think this as almost every Western nation has spent the last 2+ years doing just that.

  • Posted by blinde1

    Elizabeth C. Economy thinks China was freer in ‘the mid-late-1980s—the time of Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang’ than China is now. She is 1% correct. China was freer, but not ‘the mid-late-1980’, but precisely one month ending in June 6, 1989. If any one who has talked to the ordinary Chinese people, particularly those now age 60s who experienced the Cultural Revolution period will know China now is much freer than last 50 years with exception of the one month of 1989. The CCP is still a dictatorship party, but the lives, including social and political lives, over there are better now and are continue to improve. The experts are really don’t know China much.

    Btw, Liu Xiaobo is not a criminal, and the charges against him is ‘moxuyou (not have to have one) is rediculous. Nonetheless, he, eveidenced by western mainstream media, IS a west agent.

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