Tom Spender

Freelance journalist in London

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Battling for change

October 9th, 2010 · 1 Comment · China, Rest of Asia

As jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo wins the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, delighting Chinese activists and enraging the CCP, the battle to improve life for normal people is also continuing in neighbouring Burma (Myanmar), which is preparing for elections next month that most observers say will be a sham, although they may afford some opportunity to push for change.

A day after Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel prize, the Burmese youth opposition group Generation Wave said in a statement (below) marking 3 years of activism that they would intensify their activities to try to bring down the Burmese junta.

Generation Wave’s 2010 Annual Statement

The overall situation in China is much better than that in Burma, where most people are poor and where ethnic conflict between armed militias and the Burmese army rages sporadically. Indeed, China’s rapid economic growth may have inspired the Burmese junta to try to follow a similar path of “authoritarian development”. But activism in both countries carries great personal risk: those arrested can expect to be jailed (Liu Xiabo was sent down for 11 years for authoring Charter ’08, a call for human rights in China) or worse, sent to forced labour camps.

In such a context, it’s clearly very brave to attempt to raise people’s expectations of life, fuel dreams that don’t just revolve around material prosperity and generate the courage to stand up to oppressive authority.

Yet a few always succeed. Both the Chinese and Burmese regimes must contend with individuals who, thanks to their courage or charisma, have gained such high international profile that dealing with them becomes fraught with difficulty. In Burma there is Aung San Suu Kyi – “The Lady”, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 – and whom the Burmese regime attempted to exile and has since confined to house arrest in Rangoon for most of the past two decades. China must handle the 1989 Nobel peace laureate the Dalai Lama (who sent a message of congratulations to Liu) – and now there is a Han Chinese, Liu.

As one Chinese on twitter (translated by China Geeks) put it: “I bet some officials are regretting it now. Perhaps they’re thinking, if we hadn’t given Liu Xiaobo a harsh sentence, would the Nobel Peace Prize still have come to China?”

It’s a spectacular own goal for the CCP, which reacted in unoriginal and bullying manner by saying that the Nobel award would hurt Sino-Norwegian relations because the Nobel institution is located in Oslo. Some say the award is also an own goal for the progress of human rights etc in China because it will lead to a renewed crackdown on activists and NGOs.

Personally I’m in agreement with the Granite Studio, who has written a terrific post on this:

Change, when it comes to China, will not be sparked by the Nobel committee or Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International. Nor will it be due to the heroic (or Quixotic, depending on your perspective) activism of Liu Xiaobo and his associates. It will only come when grievances and demands breach the walls of class interest and regional difference to create the kinds of linkages seen in 1919 or 1989.

What Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize does do is expose as hollow a false premise relating to China’s government: that of gradual evolution.

So well done to Liu Xiaobo and good luck to GW as they gear up for what has to be the biggest opportunity of their short history so far – the Burmese elections on November 7.

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