BEIJING: When China allowed Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo to die in police custody, it made a bet that world governments were more invested in improving trade ties than defending political dissidents.
Even as Beijing has stepped up its crackdown on civil society, activists say, its trade partners have largely stepped down from their soap boxes.
Lured by the prospect of doing business with the world’s second largest economy and growing, many countries have toned down their criticism of Beijing’s human rights violations, voicing their concerns behind closed doors if at all.
“The Chinese government figured out 10 to 15 years ago that there was no real price to be paid,” Human Rights Watch’s China director Sophie Richardson said.
“There was never going to be any greater consequence than public rhetoric.”
Shortly after Liu’s death, Beijing’s propaganda machine was already predicting the world would soon forget the democracy advocate, who lost a battle with liver cancer on Thursday at the age of 61.
“The West has bestowed on Liu a halo that will not linger,” said an editorial in the state-owned Global Times tabloid.
“In Chinese history, none of China’s heroes were conferred by the West.”
Norway got a hard lesson about the dangers of rewarding political activists when China halted salmon imports from the Nordic country after the Oslo-based Nobel Committee awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to Liu—a veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests— while he was behind bars.
Relations only returned to normal in December. Norway’s prime minister eluded questions about Liu while he was hospitalized and simply expressed “great sadness” after he died.
The “government chose salmon over him”, said Norwegian political journalist Jan Arild Snoen.
Praise for Xi Jinping
Tributes to Liu poured in from around the world after his death, with several governments urging Beijing to release his wife, Liu Xia, who has been held under house arrest since 2010.
China lodged official protests with the United States, France, Germany and the UN human rights office over their “irresponsible remarks”, though some of the global reaction was less forceful.
In Paris on Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron and his US counterpart Donald Trump praised Chinese President Xi Jinping at a joint press conference, before later issuing statements paying tribute to Liu.
As the laureate gasped his last breaths in the First Hospital of China Medical University in the northeast city of Shenyang on Thursday, Xi himself sat smiling with Canada’s governor general as the two countries signed agreements on sports and culture cooperation.
A handful of governments had sought to secure Liu’s release.
As he lay in a heavily guarded hospital ward, Beijing declined offers by Germany, the United States and Taiwan to host him, citing his deteriorating condition and denouncing the proposals as interference in China’s internal affairs.
The lack of public pressure meant “China was able to kill a Nobel peace laureate with impunity,” said Jay Nordlinger, a political commentator and author of a book on the Peace Prize’s history.
“Governments would rather get along with the (Chinese Communist Party) than stand with its opponents,” he said, noting that many of the largest donors to American political parties have substantial financial ties to China.
Liu’s US lawyer, Jared Genser, who had arranged a medical evacuation for the laureate that was never used, had kinder words for the American efforts.
In an email to AFP, he thanked Trump for working to help the laureate go abroad, adding “it was not for a lack of pressure that President Xi refused to yield but because he and the Chinese government were intensely afraid of this one man and what he might say.”
Even in death, ‘powerful message’
While Beijing may have shrugged off foreign censure, authorities feared Liu’s appeal at home, his supporters said.
His message was spelled out in Charter 08, a petition that pointed out the failings of China’s Communist Party and argued that only democracy could repair the damage caused by its authoritarian rule.
The government’s refusal to let him leave the country was a sign that “the regime’s leaders feel insecure,” said Perry Link, a professor of Chinese literature, who translated the document into English.
Beijing detained Liu in 2008 for his role in writing the manifesto and a year later sentenced him to 11 years in prison for “subversion.”
“As long as he had a body, they had to contain the impact of what he embodied,” said David Kelly, a longtime friend of Liu and China watcher.
“Now (that) he no longer has a body, his message is actually more powerful.”