For those who remember 1989 and the tragedy that became known simply as ‘Tiananmen’, one question matters following the winning of the Nobel Peace Prize by known dissident Liu Xiabo – what does this mean for the state of democracy in China?

When the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 2010 was announced on Friday, it was no real surprise. On 25th September 2010, The New York Times was already circulating stories of a petition supporting Liu’s nomination doing the rounds in Beijing. The palpable dismay from his nation’s Communist leaders, on the other hand, was equally predictable. The state-run media immediately blacked out news broadcasts. Foreign broadcasters like CNN and BBC were not spared either, and Internet searches on Liu within China were simply deleted. Government officials, meanwhile, threatened sanctions against Norway, while calling the awarding of the prestigious prize to Liu an “obscenity”. Later Norway said its ambassador in Beijing had been summoned to the Chinese foreign ministry. “They wanted to officially share their… disagreement and their protest,” a Norwegian spokeswoman said.

Liu Xiabo (Reuters)

Liu Xiabo (Reuters)

For those who remember 1989 and the tragedy that became known simply as ‘Tiananmen’, one question matters – what does this mean for the state of democracy in China?

Democracy, from the word itself to the concept of it, has been controversial from its inception in the late nineteenth century. It was, however, never more controversial than the late 1980s.

Tiananmen was, perhaps, China’s most carefully monitored attempt at controlling the rise of popular ideas of democracy. For this, Deng Xiaoping was largely responsible. The declassification of minutes of Politburo meetings has long since proved that it was Deng who was in charge, along with Li Peng, of controlling the Politburo, the media and the military. It was also Deng who spoke dismissively to his colleagues about the West’s response to the sentencing in 1979 of a dissident, Wei Jingsheng, to 15 years in prison. “We put Wei Jingsheng behind bars, didn’t we?” he boasted. “Did that damage China’s reputation? We haven’t released him, but China’s image has not been tarnished by that. Our reputation improves day by day.”

The awarding of the Nobel Prize to someone like Liu is what hardliners in the Party have feared since the 1980s – that the West was trying to undermine Communist rule within China. Indeed, Li Xinnian is quoted, in the run-up to Tiananmen, as having said, “The United States, England, France, Japan, and some other Western countries are leaving no stone unturned in pushing peaceful evolution in the socialist countries. They’ve got a new saying about “fighting a smokeless world war.” We had better watch out. Capitalism still wants to beat socialism in the end.”

The Tiananmen Square massacre remains one of the most memorable struggles for democracy in recent history. Liu Xiabo will remember it far more vividly however – he was a key leader in the struggle. Post-1989, people everywhere in the country turned away from politics. The sensitive intellectual class, and especially the young students with their exuberant idealism, entered the 1990s with nothing like the admirable social engagement they had shown in the 1980s. Instead, many concentrated on surviving. Liu Xiabo was one of them, and he is precisely the kind of dissident that the party regards as most threatening. He is a seasoned campaigner, a veteran of the Tiananmen protests who has shown no sign of succumbing to the party’s intimidation in spite of three periods of incarceration over the past two decades (more than five years in total). He is a mildly spoken literary critic who has created the sort of consensus that is unusual to forge among China’s infighting intellectuals.

The impact of his writings has, nevertheless, not been quite as mild. In one of his pieces, written in 2006, he said the authorities’ attempts to block the spread of sensitive information meant that “a number of famous mainland Chinese dissidents find themselves in the paradoxical position of a backyard bush that blooms on the neighbor’s side of the wall: enjoying great international fame but not recognized by the general public in their own country, known only within a small circle of people”.  (The full text, along with those of other essays by Mr Liu and his trial documents, can be found on the website of Human Rights in China, a New York-based group.). In yet another piece, he is scathing about the willingness of the Chinese to bend before the rod of authority. “The repression by the dictatorial authorities is, admittedly, one of the reasons, but the indifference of the populace is an even greater cause,” he says.

Mr Liu’s Charter 08, a document that calls for democracy, was signed initially by more than 300 liberal thinkers (and then by thousands of others online). It struck a reasoned tone to which radicals and moderates alike could subscribe. The debate over “universal values” that it helped to fuel still rages within the party today. However, he was arrested before the Charter could be made public, and is currently serving an 11-year jail sentence. He was notified of his nomination for the Nobel by his lawyer, while still in jail.

Human rights groups all over the world have pointed to the significance of this award. Corinna Barbara-Francis, the spokesperson of Amnesty International has spoken of “increased attention” on China with Liu’s win. Nicholas Bequelin, senior researcher at the Asia Division of the Human Rights Watch, has termed it a “victory for all the courageous Chinese dissidents, activists, lawyers and human rights defenders who have continued to stand up to tyranny for all these years.” World leaders, the most significant being President Obama of the United States have correspondingly called for the release of Mr. Liu.

This being said, though the spotlight is certainly on an uncomfortable area for China, does it mean that anything will change? Can democracy have a second chance in China?

Already Beijing is in breach of several international agreements to which it is a signatory, as well as of its own provisions concerning political rights. Article 35 of China’s constitution lays down that “Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration”. In practice, both in the 1980s, and recently with the blocking out of the Nobel announcements on the state-run media, these freedoms have proved to be distinctly curtailed for China’s citizens. In an interview with Reuters on the eve of the prize announcement, Liu’s wife said as much. “This government is one that has never given reasons for its actions. It is a government that thinks there is nothing it can’t do. To get what it wants, the Communist Party will spare no effort. It will use all types of methods to block the prize or anything else that would hurt the party. They will use their money and power to get others to support them,” she said.

Minutes after the announcement was made, news channels throughout the country went blank – the government’s response to the situation. However, people within China feel that this continuing censorship (a legacy of the 1989 crackdown) won’t last in this modern day and age. Ai Weiwei, prominent contemporary Chinese artist and activist, says, “Today’s Internet will spread this news fast. We’ve already put it on Twitter, people will paste it elsewhere. People who want to know will find out.” Pu Zhiqiang, Chinese rights lawyer and friend of Liu, agrees, “Liu Xiaobo is not very widely known in China now. Once people hear about this prize, they will want to know more about him and his ideas will become better known.” He is right. Liu Xiabo’s name is already one of the most Googled.

China knows that the tag of ‘superpower’ which it is fast on its way to achieving comes with additional responsibilities, one of which is conforming to conventional international standards. The stakes, however, are certainly different than they were in the 1980s.

In the 1980s, China was still a nascent power – one that the West was eager to court as an ally in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. Twenty years later, the scenario is different. To be sure, with President Obama already calling for the release of Mr Liu, along with countries like France and human rights groups like Amnesty International, the pressure is very much on.

But China’s rapid economic growth and the West’s desires to profit from it have given the country a bit more breathing space. In addition, though there will certainly be an explosion of comment and information in cyberspace, in reality, Western powers like the United States will not concern themselves with individual dissidents, beyond raising token signs of concern. A telling indicator is the statement made by Hillary Clinton, on a visit to Beijing. Ms Clinton said that she had certainly raised the issue of human rights, but “our pressing on those issues can’t interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis.

Still, the fact that after decades of non-violent struggle Mr Liu has won the Nobel Peace Prize remains symbolically significant. It may not end the authoritarian system of one-party rule within the country, but it help transmit a legacy of struggle, carried on long-forgotten and disappeared dissidents onto newer generations. It may not mean Tiananmen Part 2, but it will certainly give the memory new significance.