China is now the only country to detain a Nobel Peace Prize laureate after Burma released Aung San Suu Kyi, but experts say the unwonted limelight will not prod Beijing into freeing dissident writer Liu Xiaobo anytime soon.
Nobel committee chaiperson Thorbjoern Jagland said the Burma democracy icon’s release was an encouragement to all political prisoners including Liu, but observers do not see it influencing Beijing.
“I can’t imagine that there will be an impact,” said Ian Holliday, a professor of political science at the University of Hong Kong.
“At any rate China will make its own calculations based on its own stability situation … and it won’t really care what the United States or others think.”
Liu, a 54-year-old writer, is currently serving 11 years in jail for subversion after he co-authored a 2008 petition calling for political reform in China. He was awarded the peace prize on October 8, sparking Beijing’s fury.
The military regime in Burma — notorious for its rigidity — released Suu Kyi from her long period of house arrest at the weekend, an event that ally China has refused to comment on.
“The release of Aung San Suu Kyi means that China is now the only country to be keeping a Nobel Peace Prize laureate in prison,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“It’s difficult to win over international public opinion with a Nobel Peace Prize laureate in jail.”
Under the spotlight
Holliday said the international spotlight would make China “uncomfortable” as the December 10 Nobel award ceremony approached. “But once that is out of the way, world attention will move on to something else,” he added.
But Jean-Philippe Beja, a China expert in Paris-based research centre CNRS, said Suu Kyi’s release “increases pressure on China.”
“If the junta in Myanmar [Burma] — which has a dreadful international image — frees its Nobel laureate, why is it that China keeps theirs in prison?”
Beja noted that China’s leaders could release Liu — who will not leave prison before 2020 if he serves his full sentence — if they wanted.
“They have already freed some prisoners [of conscience] for health reasons. It’s a political decision.”
This was the case for Wang Dan, Han Dongfang and Chen Ziming, figureheads of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy protests, or Wei Jingsheng and Xu Wenli, prominent during the “Beijing Spring”, a period of political liberalisation in 1978-1979.
But Liu has already indicated that he will not accept an early release if it is conditional on him going into exile — unlike Wang, Wei or Xu.
Observers rule out an early release before the prize ceremony in Oslo, which Beijing is trying to stop Chinese dissidents and foreign diplomats from attending.
Nobel Institute director Geir Lundestad said Wednesday no members of Liu’s immediate family would be able to come to Norway to receive his prize.
But symbolic dates such as the Chinese New Year in February or the annual Parliament session in March could provide an opportunity for the government to make a gesture, experts said.
“Everything will depend on international pressure” and “the power plays within the regime,” said Beja, as the successors of President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao get ready to replace them in 2013.
He added that the severity of Liu’s sentence was not thought to have received unanimous consent within the leadership, with rising voices in the Communist Party’s top echelons urging political reform, led by Wen among others.
Bequelin also stressed that Liu’s early release would depend on international pressure.
“If it becomes too costly to keep Liu in prison in terms of image, the government will be inclined to release him,” he said.
In 2013 “new leaders will come to power, and not being directly responsible for the decision to send Liu to prison for 11 years, they could look to get rid of a problem that they only inherited.”
In the meantime, though, Liu has seen his day-to-day life in prison improve, with cigarettes and better food. “In any case, the notoriety of a prisoner is a guarantee against potential abuse,” Bequelin said. – AFP