Last month, as the entire world watched, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo died in miserable conditions. Despite his wish to die as a free man and the efforts of countless individuals and organizations to help him, Liu Xiaobo died in the Shenyang Military Hospital under police guard.
The international community stood helpless as the Chinese government ruthlessly shattered Liu Xiaobo’s last wish by denying his request to seek medical treatment abroad. Only after his death did Western leaders publicly mention Liu Xiaobo’s name and pay tribute to him. But none of them have strongly condemned the Chinese Communist regime, which imprisoned a Nobel laureate who should never have been jailed in the first place. Nor have they called for an independent investigation into the regime’s deliberate negligence or the suspected conspiracy that caused his death.
Liu Xiaobo feared then that the West might repeat the same mistake as it did during the rise of the fascist Third Reich and the Communist USSR. He warned that the international community must remain vigilant in the face of the rising Chinese Communist dictatorship because the game for world dominance had changed. The Chinese Communists had also morphed into a new beast — more adaptive, cunning, and deceptive.
In 2007, in his essay titled “China’s Adaptability in Dealing with the West,” Liu Xiaobo wrote:
In this new game, the Chinese Communists no longer stick to ideology and military confrontation, instead they are committed to economic development and to making as many friends as possible without constraints. . . . How can anyone fail to see that the Chinese regime with a bulging wallet has been conducting a money diplomacy, and has become a blood transfusion machine that provides life support for other dictators in the world, while using its market to lure and threaten the Western countries, dividing and conquering the Western alliance with trade and economic favors. If this rapid and dictatorial rise of a powerful state with enormous economic strength is not contained, but continues to be appeased, the West will repeat the same fatal mistakes as in the past, resulting in not only a catastrophe for the Chinese people but also severe setbacks for global democratization.
Twenty-eight years ago, unprecedented peaceful pro-democracy protests broke out in China. When Liu Xiaobo flew back to Beijing from New York in late April 1989, the largest march of the weeks-old protest was in full swing. An endless crowd of peaceful protesters flooded the miles-long Chang’an Avenue — a true demonstration of people power. This march was a strong testimony and symbol for the Chinese people: that the pursuit of democracy was not the goal of just a few dissidents, but the common hope of millions of Chinese citizens, especially the youngest generation of students.
We all know the tragic ending of that hopeful spring of 1989. The regime’s hard-liners, led by Deng Xiaoping, brutally crushed the pro-democracy movement, resulting in a massacre, which the international community unanimously condemned.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European bloc, the United States became the world’s only superpower. Free and democratic forces achieved a glorious victory. At that time, it was generally believed that the collapse of the Chinese Communist dictatorship was imminent.
Nearly three decades have passed, however, and the Chinese dictatorship not only failed to collapse, it has grown increasingly stronger. The regime stubbornly resisted any political reform even as it deepened economic reform. With its economic success, the Chinese regime has become more arrogant and aggressive, openly challenging America’s leadership on the world stage.
In the sphere of international trade and commerce, China has applied low standards of human rights, environmental protection, and morality, and has engaged in other unfair trade practices, resulting in an astronomical trade deficit for the United States. China’s conduct has undermined the interests of the peoples of both countries.
China’s pernicious influence has subtly penetrated all aspects of American society and other democracies. We are witnessing an astonishing reversal of world history: Dictatorial China is gaining the upper hand.
China’s pernicious influence has subtly penetrated all aspects of American society and other democracies. We are witnessing an astonishing reversal of world history: Dictatorial China is gaining the upper hand. This constitutes the most serious threat to universal human rights and democracy since World War II.
From playing a pivotal role in Tiananmen Square in 1989 to suffering a lonely death under police guard, Liu Xiaobo’s fate has become both a symbol of the plight of China’s democracy and an urgent warning to the world. In Liu Xiaobo’s own words: “To eliminate the adverse impact of the rise of China on world civilization, the free world must help this largest totalitarian country to achieve democratic transition as soon as possible.”
I hope Liu Xiaobo’s warning will not fall on deaf ears.
— Jianli Yang is the president of Citizen Power/Initiatives for China, a Tiananmen protester, and a former political prisoner of China. He was Liu Xiaobo’s representative at his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony.