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In the Liu Xiaobo Saga, the World Demands a Kinder, Gentler China

Beijing is foregoing a chance to rebrand itself to the international community as a world leader, rights advocates warn.
A man walks in front of a poster of Liu Xiaobo at an exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, on December 9th, 2010.

A man walks in front of a poster of Liu Xiaobo at an exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, on December 9th, 2010.

China continued on Tuesday to ignore requests to allow long-imprisoned political dissident and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo to leave the country for medical treatment for complications related to liver cancer. China's negligence stands as a sharp rebuttal to calls from the international community for Beijing to act "humanely."

Liu is one of many rights advocates who sacrifice their lives to the cause of Chinese human rights; many others like him languish in prison or under house arrest. But attention to Liu's case has surged abroad—his ordeal is being treated as a litmus test for whether Beijing, empowered by the absence of the United States as a world leader and stabilizer, might ease its approach toward dissenters and try to rebrand itself on the global stage.

"I think the reason we're talking about him in a way is in some ways the apocryphal tale of human rights in China," says Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. "As this government became more powerful, not only has it not opened in terms of respect for human rights or political reform, but it is manifestly politicizing a Nobel Peace Prize winners' medical condition."

Liu, a writer who has repeatedly called for the end of the Communist Party's single-party administration over the Chinese government and greater rule of law, was sentenced in 2009 to 11 years in prison for attempting to subvert the state's authority. The following year, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, a distinction that ultimately resulted in strained relations between Beijing and Oslo, the administrator of the award.

"His case tells us everything we need to know about how intolerant China remains of peaceful dissidence."

Since then, China has seen a new president come to power and the launch of an anti-graft campaign that was ostensibly created to end rampant corruption in the People's Republic. Still, it seems, China has not changed its attitude on dissidents like Liu.

"His case tells us everything we need to know about how intolerant China remains of peaceful dissidence," Richardson adds.

The administration of German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed on Monday its wishes that Beijing would show "a signal of humanity" for Liu and his family.

"There is no kinder, gentler" Communist Party of China, says Sharon Hom, director of Human Rights in China, a non-governmental organization based in New York and Hong Kong.

The calculus for Beijing is such that there are overwhelming incentives to prevent Liu from leaving—and, perhaps, speaking openly about his imprisonment—even if allowing him to seek care abroad would help paint China as a more benevolent rulership.

"Beijing must balance the consequences of not releasing Liu Xiaobo at this late stage of illness with the risks of releasing him with the freedom to disclose the truth of his experience during his nine years of imprisonment," Hom explains.

Hom adds that, by missing an opportunity to move in the direction of tolerance for dissent, Beijing risks further damning itself on the international stage.

Liu's treatment "reveals the true face of the CPC: a regime that does not respect human dignity, freedom of expression, or fundamental rights of its citizens," Hom says.

There are fears that China's growth as an economic world power could make its draconian policies toward dissent more normalized in a world brimming with rights concerns in both the East and West. Attention paid to cases like Liu's will inevitably wane, many predict, as China becomes an increasingly indispensable business partner to the world governments who speak on dissidents' behalf.

At home in China, talk of Liu is scarce. News of Liu's treatment is relatively easy to obtain for people of a certain internationally minded temperament (and the means to purchase certain technology); one only needs a VPN to jump the Great Firewall and access blocked news sites. Still, not much attention is being paid to Liu's case within China's internationally minded, rights-oriented circles, says William Hurst, a Northwestern University political science professor and expert on Chinese politics, who spoke to Pacific Standard from Beijing.

"I think it is important to keep in mind how little attention Liu's case is receiving in China. Official media, of course, have not reported on it. But even intelligent, generally well-informed, and engaged people have taken relatively little interest," Hurst says. "The most critical remarks I have heard recently have been to compare the government's handling of Liu's illness with its apparently more lenient treatment of Bo Xilai," he adds, referring to the fallen Communist Party star whose ouster marked the beginning of an ongoing anti-corruption campaign that has unseated many of the nation's elite.

When blind dissident lawyer Chen Guangcheng embarked on his successful bid to escape house arrest in 2012, the Chinese Internet lit up with discussions of his case. In a world where the news cycle is filled with ISIS, the alleged Trump-Russia ties and Alibaba coming to the U.S., news of a single man struggling for good governance in China appears much more scarce.