In global discussions about China's future influence on the world, one issue gets overshadowed by the nation's economic development (or in some cases is even deliberately avoided): how China's authoritarian political system could eventually become a liability both to China and the rest of the world.
The announcement today of the Nobel Peace Prize award to dissident Liu Xiaobo has put the issue back on the map.
China has shown the world how an essentially market economy run by an authoritarian government can achieve sustained, rapid growth. However, there is a huge hidden cost that no Chinese is allowed to talk about: the economic injustice that is rooted in the economic reform program itself. In the current political system, this economic approach 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 vigilantly apply a thick layer 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 — at least on moral grounds. Liu Xiaobo is a writer who never shied 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 has been jailed repeatedly.
Though this Nobel Peace Prize award may not change China overnight, its far-reaching implications may be felt in the growing awareness of China's youth as they can not help but ask: "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 really happened on Tiananmen Square in 1989?"
Before long, some of these citizens 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 they have long thought about it, is how to change the system.
Former Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang proposed "political reform" more than two decades ago, before his fall from power. The idea was to address the systemic economic injustices by changing the way the Party governed, by allowing more freedoms for Chinese people and more checks and balances for its government.
Zhao attempted to address the same social problems as Nobel Laureate Liu. As Zhao pointed out in his published journal, Prisoner of the State, the process of political reform "cannot rely entirely upon the ruling party's self-inclination. Public opinion and other social forces must push for it."
The Nobel Peace Prize has given a much-needed spiritual boost to all of those who, like Liu Xiaobo, fight for greater justice in China.
Bao Pu, a Hong Kong-based Chinese activist, co-edited Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang.