By Antony Dapiran
If you’d been surfing the Chinese Internet Friday, you might have read about Chinese President Xi Jinping extolling the virtues of free trade in his Thursday meeting with the Canadian Governor-General.
You might also have read about the bride in the coastal city of Qingdao who drove a bus to her own wedding. And you would surely have seen at least a handful of funny panda videos.
What you would not have read about is the death in Chinese custody of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo.
The Chinese government long ago won its battle for complete control of information in China, turning the Chinese internet into a “walled garden,” with all the news deemed fit to print by the Communist Party, and nothing more.
It is this victory that renders the Chinese government’s treatment of Liu Xiaobo tragically redundant.
Liu need never have been imprisoned, or could long ago have been paroled on medical grounds, and the vast bulk of the Chinese population would never have heard of him, much less read any of his writings. The Party had already won. In this context, the brazenness of Liu’s imprisonment appears even more chilling.
Logging onto the web in China over the last nine years since Liu’s imprisonment, you also would not have seen any reports of strong and persistent calls by global leaders for China to free their most prominent prisoner of conscience. But then you would not have seen such reports outside of China either — because it did not happen.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, China has grown in economic power and diplomatic self-confidence, while the West has been consumed in a vortex of its own internal squabbles and anxieties. Western countries have spent the years, fretting over the immigration and extremism resulting from almost two decades of constant warfare, and split by social and political division to a degree not seen in perhaps half a century. All of this anxiety manifested itself in such events as President Trump’s election and the Brexit decision.
To say the West has ceded global leadership suggests that there is a country to which it has ceded it. China, for its part, pretends to have taken that role, speaking out on issues such as climate change and free trade.
But every time China looks like it might be succeeding in taking its place on the world stage as a mature and confident global player, some internal issue — such as its treatment of Liu, or the government’s ongoing campaign against civil rights lawyers, or the extra-territorial abductions — will demonstrate just how unprepared, and how insecure, China’s leaders are.
It will be of some comfort to Beijing that, despite the expressions of grief and outrage at Liu’s passing, they will as usual be able to ride out this news cycle until the world’s attention moves on.
Another week, another meeting with a world leader extolling the virtues of free trade.
Antony Dapiran is a Hong Kong-based lawyer, Progressive Lawyers Group member and the author of City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong, published by Penguin. The opinions expressed here are his own.
Article originally appeared in CNN on 14 July 2017