The Nobel Peace Prize for Liu Xiaobo

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The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize given to China's critic Liu Xiaobo has come like a torrential shower after a drought that has lasted two decades.

It comes at a time when many of China's intellectuals choose silence instead of free speech for the privilege to partake in the remarkable trend of growing personal wealth, when its political leaders insist on maintaining the authoritarian autocracy that has a record of sustained economic growth; and when many of the world's capitals are more than willing to put the thorny issue of Chinese human rights on the back burner as China emerges as a new economic powerhouse.

The prize to Liu Xiaobo serves to put an overshadowed issue back to the fore. That is how China's political system, a legacy of 20th-century revolution and radical social programs, could eventually become a liability both to China and the rest of the world.

China has shown the world how an essentially market economy run by an authoritarian government can achieve sustained and rapid economic growth. However, there is a huge hidden cost that no Chinese is allowed to talk about: the economic injustice which is rooted in the nation's economic reform program itself. Under the current political system, this economic program essentially allows the privileged few to benefit from the property of the state, nominally owned by "the people" as part of the legacy of China's soviet-style socialist economy.

The open secret is that for the system to sustain itself, the government must apply a system of authoritarian control over the justice system, education and the press. An ever-growing security apparatus helps to silence critics and block information from reaching Chinese people via the Internet.

The weakness of such a policy, however, is that no matter what resources are mobilized to prop up this system, it doesn't take very much to bring it down on moral grounds. Liu Xiaobo is a writer who never shied away from pointing out these injustices while protesting China's lack of human rights (including freedom of expression). For this, Liu could not be tolerated and was jailed repeatedly.

Although this prize may not change China overnight, its implications may be felt in the growing awareness of China's youth as they cannot help but wonder: "Why is the government holding a Nobel Laureate in prison? What is Charter 08? What does Liu Xiaobo stand for? What is his life story? What was the Tiananmen Square Crackdown of 1989 about?"

Before long, some of them will eventually connect the dots and realize that many of the social ills they see around them are rooted in the political system. The fundamental issue that China's current leadership has chosen to ignore, though it has been nagging them for years, is how to change this political system.

Liu Xiaobo is a thinker and writer with a remarkable combination of passion and reason, who has grown through the years. As a young literary critic in 1988, Liu was asked by a Hong Kong reporter what China needed to make fundamental changes to its social-political system. He answered, "300 years of colonization; Hong Kong had 100 years, so it should take more than that for the entire mainland."

While this early statement reflected only a deep desire for change, after serving two jail terms (from 1989 to 1991 and from 1996 to 1999), Liu grew more analytical about China's social ills and considered practical action that could realistically be realized. In 2001, in one of his many essays, Liu proposed that China prepare to make the transition to privatized rural land and empower the rural population by allowing elections of local leaders. "Equitable privatization of land" remains as visionary and elusive today as it was then. Instead, what prevails is power elites reserving the right to take the nation's most profitable lands by force in the name of "public ownership."

In December of 2009, faced with his third jail term, this time for a devastating 11 years, Liu rejected the government's outmoded mentality of "class struggle." Despite the great injustice being done to him, Liu retained his objectivity and moderation. He declared "I have no enemies." In his final statement, he acknowledged the positive progress made by his jailer, the Chinese government, in its gradual acceptance that protecting human rights is a fundamental value. He also said that he had no regrets for standing his ground.

Through three decades of activism, Liu has reexamined and revised his ideas. Through repeated imprisonments, he has grown increasingly moderate in his proposals for practical action. And throughout, Liu Xiaobo has firmly upheld his fundamental belief that the recognition of rights and dignity is essential to human progress.

With echoes of Nelson Mandela's "truth and reconciliation," Liu's passage to maturity demonstrates that this year's Nobel Peace Prize Laureate is a leading thinker with the right stuff to move things forward.

For another view of the Nobel Peace Prize, click here.