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A fitting honour

Globe and Mail
October 23, 2008

The European Union should be applauded for awarding dissident Hu Jia its top human-rights honour in defiance of the Chinese government. China's ambassador to the EU, Song Zhe, had warned that giving the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought to Mr. Hu “would inevitably hurt the Chinese people once again and bring serious damage to China-EU relations.”

In early October the Nobel Foundation – which was widely expected to name Mr. Hu as the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize – opted for Martti Ahtisaari, a deserving if less controversial Finnish diplomat, after a similar statement from Beijing.

The European award will hopefully provide some comfort to Mr. Hu, a human-rights campaigner who has exposed government abuses, environmental degradation and the plight of people with HIV-AIDS in China, as he serves a three-and-a-half year jail sentence for “incitement to subvert state power.” It may also impress upon the Chinese government that tantrums and threats are not a foolproof way of avoiding international scrutiny.

Beijing's strange obsession with Mr. Hu is, meanwhile, demonstrative of just how far the country remains from anything resembling democracy, even as some of its officials begin to hint that a plan for a democratic transition is in the works.

Zhou Tianyong, a senior Communist Party official, told The Daily Telegraph two weeks ago that by 2020 China will have “public democratic involvement at all government levels,” and president Hu Jintao has made similar (though more equivocal) noises.

Democracy in China is a thrilling possibility. Coupled with its economic clout, enormous population and ancient civilization, China has the potential to assume a position of true world leadership were it to undergo such a transformation. But the country's many ongoing human-rights violations, Mr. Hu's case included, call Beijing's seriousness into question.

It's not comforting that Mr. Zhou's report on the need for democratic reform was entitled “Storming the Fortress,” for its key argument that without greater participation in the political system China's emerging middle class will try to topple the government.

“Democracy” for Beijing certainly refers to continued Communist rule, and even then it may mean ceding only those freedoms deemed necessary to co-opt unrest and hanging on to other state prerogatives – like throwing political opponents into jail on trumped-up charges.

China is a big, complex place with a wide array of problems, and it's foolish to demand that it become a full liberal democracy overnight.

In the long run, however, no other outcome should be acceptable to the West, or for that matter to China's citizens. And if Beijing wants the rhetorical benefit of promising “democracy” at home and abroad, then what it has in mind must involve inviolable political rights and full, multiparty elections.

Keeping Hu Jia and thousands of other dissidents in jail or worse, and throwing fits when the West dares recognize their plight, is hardly an auspicious start to any democratic reform worthy of the name.

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