What are they afraid of?

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - FRED HI­ATT

As you read about No­bel Peace Prize win­ner Liu Xi­aobo, who died in Chi­nese cap­tiv­ity, ask your­self this: Why are his jail­ers—Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping and the rest of China’s Com­mu­nist regime— so afraid?

I won­der about that ques­tion some­times when I think of an­other of their cap­tives, some­one you are less likely to have heard of, a man named Wang Bingzhang.

Wang is, at this point, one of China’s long­est-serv­ing po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers. He is 69 years old and in poor health. He has been locked up since 2002 when Chi­nese agents kid­napped him from Viet­nam, hauled him across the bor­der, kept him in­com­mu­ni­cado for six months and then sen­tenced him, in a one-day closed-door “trial” held without no­tice to fam­ily or friends, to life in prison.

Wang’s crime? Like Liu, he had cam­paigned, peace­fully, for democ­racy in China. He had ar­gued that free­dom is not a “West­ern” value but a de­sire and a right of all hu­man beings.

For that, he, like Liu, had to be locked away and pre­vented from com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the world.

Why are they so afraid?

Why would they keep Liu Xi­aobo in his cell un­til his can­cer was so ad­vanced that he was near death, and then keep him from trav­el­ing abroad, where he might yet have got­ten care? Why would they keep Wang from spend­ing his last years with his chil­dren and grand­chil­dren?

What fear could mo­ti­vate such cru­elty? The an­swer, I be­lieve, has some­thing to do with the story China’s rulers tell their peo­ple, and maybe them­selves, to cling to power.

The story, it’s im­por­tant to note, is partly true: The regime has, in the past quar­ter-cen­tury, presided over steady eco­nomic growth that has brought hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple out of poverty and into the mid­dle class. On its scale, it is a unique achieve­ment in hu­man his­tory.

But their story is also, in many re­spects, false. Far from be­ing self­less pa­tri­ots, the rul­ing elite has grown fat off the state. They do not want Chi­nese peo­ple read­ing about their over­seas bank ac­counts or their chil­dren at­tend­ing elite for­eign prep schools and uni­ver­si­ties.

Far from de­liv­er­ing con­tin­u­ous progress for an ever-hap­pier na­tion, the regime since 1949 has in­ter­mit­tently plunged China into dis­as­trous famines and spasms of in­ternecine vi­o­lence that have cost tens of mil­lions of lives. To­day it must em­ploy tens of thou­sands of cen­sors and lock away hun­dreds of lawyers, jour­nal­ists and re­li­gious be­liev­ers to main­tain the fa­cade of uni­ver­sal ac­claim.

Per­haps most per­ilously, the Com­mu­nist Party rules over a pop­u­la­tion that no longer be­lieves in com­mu­nism. The regime’s only re­main­ing jus­ti­fi­ca­tion is that it de­liv­ers eco­nomic growth. Yet, as the econ­omy be­comes more com­plex, growth be­comes more and more de­pen­dent on peo­ple be­ing free to think, read, chal­lenge and com­pete. The regime is caught in this para­dox, and afraid.

On some level, Xi and his col­leagues must know that Liu and Wang are right and they are wrong. Clearly they fear that their peo­ple will come to that re­al­iza­tion. Maybe they are also afraid to ad­mit it to them­selves.

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