By Benjamin A Shobert
On Tuesday last week, the Congressional Executive Commission on China (CECC) held a hearing on Liu Xiaobo. While it was focused specifically on the one-year anniversary of Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize, it also sought to answer the larger question of what his treatment suggests about the potential for further reform of China's political process.
In the midst of a United States Congress increasingly of the mind that the country's historical policy of engagement with China needs to be re-evaluated, this hearing was an important attempt to address growing suspicions about the idea that engaging China will successfully bring about political liberalization.
As Congressman Christopher Smith (Republican - New Jersey) said in his opening statement, Xiaobo is currently "isolated in prison thousands of miles away from his wife, whom is under house arrest in Beijing". While some have suggested that Xiaobo's imprisonment should be understood as somehow unique, Smith clearly believes this is not the case.
Pointing to the CECC's database, he noted that they are aware of "1,451 cases of known political or religious prisoners currently detained".
Perry Link, Professor Emeritus of East Asian Studies at Princeton University and author of Liu Xiaobo's Empty Chair, testified at last week's hearing that Xiaobo believes that the "roots of China's political problems are not personal but political". This careful turn of the phrase counters the dominant idea in the Communist Party that the Chinese people are somehow not yet ready, nor may they ever be, to manage the responsibility of a more democratic form of government.
When Xiaobo wrote, "the people's grins are the fears of dictators" he captured the profound insecurity of the party that would ultimately take away his freedom. Aware that the Beijing model is unsustainable in its current form, Link said, this insecurity is an "inner panic they themselves cannot control", yet as Link said, Xiaobo remains a man "much more at peace than the men who oppress him".
Pointing towards the mechanics of Xiaobo's trial, Li Xiaorong, a Chinese scholar, testified "the practice of unlawful secret detention has profound ramifications and a chilling effect in the country's rapidly declining climate of rule of law reform". What troubles scholars such as Xiaorong are not only the specifics of Xiaobo's trial, but also what his imprisonment says about the direction of China's nascent political reforms.
As she said last week, "As we speak, in a revision of the Chinese Criminal Procedural Law under consideration in the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, the government is trying to legalize such secret detentions or enforced disappearances."
This is troubling because it signals quite clearly the party's intention to continue working at cross-purposes with the forces of democratization and dissent inside the country. Even more troubling to US-Sino relations, a move such as this by the party undercuts the belief that economic engagement with China would ultimately lead to political liberalization.
Xiaorong testified last week, "We now find many politicians, diplomats, businessmen and academics largely on the same page about the importance in addressing China's human-rights problems." At a time of heightened economic frustrations between the United States and China, it would be impossible to understate how potentially damaging the party's moves in these areas are to the policy of engagement continuing as it has in the past.
Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, turned his testimony to the even larger question of what China's model means to the world at large, including other dictatorships and authoritarian governments who look to Beijing for insights into how to maintain control while still being open to the free market.
Gershman believes China's model contains many foundational flaws, not least of which is the explicit relationship between the government's legitimacy and the economy. As he testified last week, the government "has achieved a degree of performance-based legitimacy by using market reform to generate material wealth. But such legitimacy is inherently unstable since it is not immune to the business cycle".
When the business cycle bites China, as it inevitably bites everyone everywhere at some point in a country's development, this legitimacy will be challenged in ways not seen since the crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Given the country's mounting problems in the real estate market, the state-owned banking system, and signs of a slowing economy, an existential threat to Beijing's political legitimacy may not be far around the corner.
Link noted in his comments that China's ruling party is marked both by an "insecurity and a confidence that money can do anything". This simple calculus has worked for Beijing thus far, but it may well have reached its zenith, as Wednesday's protests in Wukan, Guangdong province over the death of a land-grab protesting villager in police custody illustrate all too well. Economics matter, but so do the human ideals of liberty and freedom.
Gershman believes that Beijing's political legitimacy also suffers because large groups of Chinese citizens feel left behind by the country's rapid economic expansion and the extent to which the resulting wealth is isolated in a few people's hands.
This extreme income inequality, coupled with the uneven access people in rural China have to social services more easily accessed along the Chinese coast, are becoming increasingly problematic for the country's government and its attempt to maintain power. Rather than accommodating people's desire to verbalize these frustrations, Beijing is attempting to restrain the conversation itself. From the perspective of those who testified at last week's CECC hearing this only further contributes to political tensions.
Can the United States strike a balance between challenging China's anti-democratic practices and the economic engagement that has benefited both countries? This has been the assertion of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Representative Tim Walz (Democrat - Minnesota) commented during the hearings that he "refuse[s] to believe we need to capitulate our stance on human rights with this false choice of upholding human rights with economic growth".
Congressman Frank Wolf (Republican - Virginia) asked those testifying where they thought China was in relation to the collapse of the Soviet Union, "Not [where you] hope we are, where you think we are." While some were quick to say they did not know, Gershman answered, Beijing "do[es] not have the stability which comes from resiliency - it is a very brittle system - if they go through an economic crisis it could break, and we do not know when that might happen."
In response to Wolf's question, Xiaorong reminded everyone that while setting a specific timeline was not possible, "Nobody predicted what would happen in the Arab Spring." Her reminder was simple but powerful in the context of Wolf's question: experts have been feckless at predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Arab autocrats who fell during the Arab Spring. This should give China experts some humility when looking at whether China can forever use economic growth as the primary source of its political legitimacy and how vulnerable the country may be to economic difficulty.
Asked by a congressman whether the United States' fixation on dictatorships like those in the Middle East versus China's was a double standard, Gershman was quick to respond, "It is more than a double standard." Link commented that it is a mistake to keep American diplomacy on these issues all behind closed doors, not least of which because it may prevent those being held against their will from being made aware that others recognize their unlawful detention.
What last week's CECC hearing clearly shows is that congress' mounting concerns over China are present on every front: Beijing shows all the signs of becoming a strategic, economic and ideological competitor to the United States.
The original policy of engagement was formulated during a period of extreme strategic importance (China as a Cold War bulwark against the Soviet Union), where ideological differences could be easily papered over. Economic engagement was that much easier because the country did not pose an economic threat of any sort - in fact they were desperately in need of technology and trade.
But now things are clearly different; the American Congress is increasingly wondering whether we can any longer afford to engage China as we have in the past.
If congress becomes increasingly vocal about the US's policy of engagement with China it will no doubt be a reflection of two realizations: the first the US's own economic insecurities and the question of how much China has benefited at America's expense (whether actual or perceived), and the second will be that China's authoritarian political practices are simply and profoundly at odds with ideals America holds dear.
Such a realization would set in motion not just a new policy of engagement, but a strategic isolation of China from its major trading partners, a move which in and of itself would likely threaten the economic growth and associated political legitimacy which Beijing so desperately needs.
Benjamin A Shobert is the Managing Director of Rubicon Strategy Group, a consulting firm specialized in strategy analysis for companies looking to enter emerging economies.