This week marked the fifth anniversary of Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo's detention and current term in prison. Detained in 2008 for his participation in writing Charter 08, a manifesto calling for democratic reforms in China, Liu is serving an 11-year sentence for "inciting subversion of state power."
This week also saw the funeral of another Nobel laureate whose life included a long term in prison for the very activities that earned him his Nobel Prize. The juxtaposition of these two events in time is an uncomfortable one for the Chinese government – a "fearful symmetry," to borrow loosely from William Blake.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry marked the occasion of Liu Xiaobo's anniversary with a statement urging China to release him from prison and his wife, Liu Xia, from house arrest. The Chinese foreign ministry promptly responded with a statement of its own saying that Kerry had no right to comment on the fate of Mr. and Ms. Liu. The foreign ministry stated that "China's 1.3 billion people have the best right to talk about the country's human rights." The 1.3 billion Chinese people the statement referred to apparently doesn't include dissidents.
Like other world media, Chinese state-run media also covered the funeral of Nelson Mandela this week in South Africa. Unlike other world media, however, China censored its news coverage of Mandela's funeral to exclude any "sensitive topics" such as his remarks on human rights and democracy, his relationship with the Dalai Lama or South Africa's close diplomatic relationship with Taiwan. Poor China. Even the funeral of a beloved man on another continent is a "sensitive" matter subject to government censorship.
"All media and websites must be prudent in selecting the materials and [must] report appropriately," read orders from the Communist Party's propaganda department on news coverage and public commentary about Mandela. "All posts and comments on [Chinese microblog site] Weibo and blogs that take advantage of the funeral of Mandela to attack our political systems and state leaders must be deleted immediately." For the Chinese Communist Party, it seems, anything and everything that happens in the world is only ever about the party and its desperate grip on power.
Meanwhile, Chinese government media reacted angrily to comparisons between Liu Xiaobo and Nelson Mandela. "Mandela was a Nobel Peace Prize laureate for leading African people to anti-apartheid victory through struggles, tolerance and efforts to bridge differences," said an editorial in Communist Party mouthpiece the Global Times. "However, awarding a Chinese prisoner who confronted authorities and was rejected by mainstream Chinese society derides China's judiciary system."
South African authorities under apartheid probably would have offered the same sad excuse for themselves the Chinese authorities offer today. Wasn't Mandela also once "a prisoner who confronted authorities and was rejected by 'mainstream' society"?
Despite the heavy hand of Chinese government censorship, some Weibo users begged to differ. "We are remembering a person who respected and struggled for human rights, freedom and equality," wrote one user, "but China's Mandela, who has done exactly the same kind of things, has been jailed." Wrote another user: "If Mandela had been Chinese, he'd have been beaten to death."
Still other Weibo users compared Liu and Mandela both with a third Nobel laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar (Burma), who also spent many years in confinement for her efforts on behalf of democracy and human rights. Now free, Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to Myanmar's parliament in 2012 and plans to run for president in 2015. As one user wrote: "China does not lack people like Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi. The difference is that they both eventually ended up being freed. People like this, in China, once they go into jail, they vanish."
Three Nobel laureates: one a beloved former South African president now among the honored dead, one a likely future president of Myanmar and one still sitting in a prison cell in China.This is fearful symmetry indeed for an outdated Chinese dictatorship desperate to cling perpetually to power.
Mark C. Eades is a writer for the Foreign Policy Association and an educator based in Shanghai, China. You can follow him on Twitter @mceades.