China's attempt to intimidate other governments into not attending next month's Nobel peace prize ceremony should be a good reminder that even an economically powerful country can and should be confronted when it violates international human rights principles.
Beijing's pressure is not surprising. Brazen arm-twisting may even seem a logical tactic to prevent people from paying tribute to the courage of the jailed scholar Liu Xiaobo, and thus to discourage others from going down that same path. It is a tactic that seems driven by China's recognition that its own people are increasingly demanding their rights, and calls for reform are not limited to activists such as Liu Xiaobo.
The writer was sentenced last year to 11 years in jail for "inciting subversion of state power". His real crime, as co-author of the Charter 08 document which calls for greater political freedom, was to dare to speak the truth.
The harsh sentence may have contributed to the Nobel committee's decision to award Liu the prize. The award, in turn, ensures that Liu's name is now far better known, inside and outside China, than ever before. The pressures from China – including warnings of unspecified "consequences" if ambassadors attend the ceremony on 10 December – have been unprecedented. The result: so far, five other countries have agreed to stay away. That is five too many – but, put differently, it is only five. China no doubt hoped for much more.
Those countries – Russia and Cuba, along with Morocco, Iraq and Kazakhstan – have named and shamed themselves as countries which believe that speaking out is not a right, but a crime. In the context, that is perhaps hardly surprising. In Russia, the murder of the journalist Anna Politkovskaya is just one of the crimes against those who speak the truth that has gone unpunished. In Cuba, even after a series of recent releases, 12 people remain behind bars as prisoners of conscience. This solidarity with Beijing thus defines what used to be called, in the context of apartheid South Africa, a "polecat alliance", a community of the unlovable.
Too often, governments seem mesmerised by China's economic and political clout. Even the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, avoided praising Liu Xiaobo's courage when the award was announced last month. He worried instead that the prize should not "detract from advancement of the human rights agenda globally or the high prestige and inspirational power of the award". We must hope that on 10 December he will find words which sound less frightened of speaking truth to power.
Part of the Chinese government's bullying strategy is the argument that Liu Xiaobo and other Chinese dissidents play an insignificant role in China itself. What, after all, do a few thousand signatories of Charter 08 count for, in a country of 1.3 billion people? The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei argues differently. He tweeted, at the time of Liu's sentencing last year: "This does not mean a meteor has fallen. This is the discovery of a star." More recently, Ai noted that Western silence about Chinese abuses does nobody any good – least of all the Chinese. "China looks efficient only because it can sacrifice most people's rights. This is not something the West should be happy about."
China's rising economic power makes it easy to argue that only naïve dreamers believe in the possibilities of real change. But history shows us that so-called dreamers have repeatedly achieved more than the self-proclaimed "pragmatists" ever imagined, especially when they have the support of world opinion.
In Czechoslovakia, the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel, co-author of the Charter 77 document on which Charter 08 was modelled, was labelled a "nobody"; 12 years after Charter 77, he became his country's popularly acclaimed president. The dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov was known to few Russians, and supported by fewer, when he was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1975; when he died in 1989, tens of thousands attended his funeral.
In China in 2010, it is important to ask why the Beijing government would go to such extraordinary and undiplomatic lengths, if it didn't itself recognise the potential appeal of those who speak the truth. Increasingly in China, there have been examples of defiance against the odds, among them the internet activist Cheng Jianping, sentenced this month to a year in labour camp for retweeting a satirical observation about anti-Japanese protests.
Meanwhile, millions of Chinese internet users have bitterly mocked the the arbitrariness of state power, by adopting the emblematic phrase "My father is Li Gang!". It reflects their anger at the censorship which forbids discussion of a fatal hit-and-run accident last month where the son of a senior police official believed that his parentage made him untouchable. Liu Xiaobo and his fellow-authors of Charter 08 declared: "Change is no longer optional." That is a message for the Chinese government – and a message governments around the world should heed in the lead-up to the Oslo ceremony.
Nobody knows what the long-term consequences of Liu's courage will be. Concerted pressure on Beijing may achieve nothing in the short term. But next month's ceremony in Oslo represents an important opportunity to confront the power of those who have reason to fear change. The truth must be spoken and heard with the clarity that courageous Chinese like Liu Xiaobo deserve.
The writer is international advocacy director of Amnesty International and co-author of 'Small Acts of Resistance: How Courage, Tenacity and Ingenuity Can Change the World'; www.smallacts ofresistance.comReuse content