By Susan Jakes
Originally published by Project Syndicate on Nov. 23, 2010
WASHINGTON, DC – As China's clout in global affairs grows, the world is watching more closely than ever to see what kind of great power it will become. Next month, when jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo receives the Nobel Peace Prize, attention will be drawn away from the more encouraging aspects of what China’s leaders like to call their country's "rise," and toward their persistent mistreatment of its most outspoken citizens. Already, Chinese officials’ ham-handed response to the award has undercut their cherished—and lavishly financed—mission to project China’s "soft power" around the globe.
Liu won the prize because his lifelong commitment to political activism makes him exceptional. But we ought to pay equally close attention to another jailed Chinese activist, one whose plight at the hands of China's justice system is just as troubling as Liu’s—and far more revealing of the boundaries of permissible dissent.
A Beijing court recently convicted Zhao Lianhai, a 38-year-old former advertising salesman, of "using a popular social issue to incite a mob ... to seriously disrupt social order," and sentenced him to two and a half years in prison.
Unlike Liu, Zhao had not called for change in China's political system. Rather, he had spent two years rallying around the almost boringly uncontroversial notion that his family and many others deserve justice from the Sanlu Dairy Group, a company that gave their children kidney stones by illegally doctoring its milk powder with the industrial chemical melamine.
Zhao did not set out to become an activist. His three-year-old son was lucky to recover quickly after he and 300,000 other children fell ill after drinking the adulterated milk in 2008. But some of the children urinated blood, others have suffered long-term health problems, and at least six died. Zhao, who once worked for the government's own product-safety watchdog and lived in the capital, saw an opportunity to help less well-positioned families. He set up Web sites to help them exchange medical information, attract media attention, and file lawsuits demanding compensation.
Initially, the campaign seemed to succeed. A massive recall of Chinese milk ensued, and the Sanlu Dairy Group collapsed. Two of Sanlu's suppliers were executed, and its chairwoman was sentenced to life in prison. China’s National People's Congress enacted a new food-safety law.
But, after Zhao and other parents protested that the government's compensation plan was inadequate to cover the cost of their children’s ongoing medical care, they began to receive threats from local police. Zhao’s Web sites were repeatedly shut down, and the group's lawyers received phone calls from authorities urging them to drop the case. In late 2009, Zhao was officially arrested; he has been in police custody ever since.
Zhao's campaign had been based on the widespread belief in China that while local officials or individual businesspeople may engage in venal or criminal activities, the central government, once informed of the truth, will see to it that justice is done.
After all, the same Chinese leaders who reject Liu's calls for political reform argue that what Chinese citizens really want are not "Western-style" rights, but basic necessities—clean water, economic opportunities, safe food—that allow their families to prosper, and which China’s own homegrown political system can adequately protect.
But Zhao's conviction, like the mistreatment of other Chinese whistleblowers, sends the message that when faced with a perceived threat to social stability, China's legal institutions are not up to the task of providing basic protections to its citizens. A discussion thread on the case on Tianya, a popular Chinese Internet portal, was soon flooded with comments expressing bafflement and outrage at the verdict.
"I don't have children of my own," wrote one, "but reading this makes my heart hurt."
Another wrote: "If things go on this way, our country doesn't have a future."
In Hong Kong, Zhao's sentence has sparked popular protests outside of government offices and formal objections from local officials. Reactions like these ought to be far more worrying to China’s leaders than any rebuke from a group of Norwegians. Zhao’s allies are not out to "humiliate China." Rather, like those around the world who believe China deserves credit for its impressive achievements—indeed, like Liu Xiaobo himself—they want their country to develop governing institutions befitting its growing economic stature.
So do China’s neighbors and global partners—and for reasons that have as much to do with self-interest as political values. If China is to honor its commitments on a wide range of international issues—trade, product safety, and environmental protection, to name just a few—and command genuine trust and respect at home and abroad, it will need to embrace people like Zhao, not silence them.
Susan Jakes is a Senior Fellow at the Asia Society's Center on US-China Relations.