The World From Berlin 'China's Thin Veneer Is Cracked'

Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo drew a harsh sentence for his crusade for political freedom. His punishment -- 11 years in prison for "subversion" -- is likely to tarnish China's international image. The German government has expressed dismayed and anger over the verdict and newspaper commentators feel the same way.
A pro-democracy protester in Hong Kong holds a placard with a picture of Liu Xiaobo. China's most prominent dissident was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Friday.

A pro-democracy protester in Hong Kong holds a placard with a picture of Liu Xiaobo. China's most prominent dissident was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Friday.


A Chinese court sentenced dissident Liu Xiaobo to 11 years in prison for "subversion" on Friday for authoring calls for more political freedoms in China. A manifesto Liu wrote in 2008 and six articles he published on the Internet were among the grounds for his conviction on the subversion charge. Chinese civil rights groups say the sentence is the most severe since the "subversion" law was introduced in 1997.

The sentence immediately drew harsh words from around the world. German Chancellor Angela Merkel came out with some of the strongest criticism  she has directed at China in a long time. Merkel denounced the sentence over the weekend, saying she was "dismayed" by the court's decision. "It is regretable that, despite great progress in other areas, China still massively restricts freedom of opinion and of the press," Merkel said in a statement.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle also expressed disapointment at the verdict.

The reaction from China was hostile. A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing said calls from foreign governments for Liu's release were a "gross interference" in its internal affairs. Foreign diplomats trying to attend the final day of Liu's trial were barred from the courtroom. German commentators on Monday were both outraged and pessimistic.

Left-wing Tageszeitung writes:

"Eleven years in prison for six Internet articles and a reformist manifesto: The verdict against the honorary president of the PEN Writer's Club, Liu Xiaobo, is alarming. It's the most severe punishment in recent memory for a political dissident."

"The verdict should shake all those who are naïve enough to believe the assurances of high-ranking Communist Party officials that China is slowly but surely transforming itself into a democratic state. The repression won't lessen, as the functionaries promise. Just the opposite: Progress that Chinese civil rights activists and lawyers have made through great struggle in the last few years is threatened or has already been overturned in many places."

"But Liu is no 'domestic issue. He peacefully struggled to make his country's government more democratic. The verdict against him is a crime perpetrated by men and women in the Communist Party leadership who want to secure their power and careers. There's nothing good to say about this return to Stalinism."

Center-right Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"A subtle but palpable change is gripping China. Civil disobedience among the people is growing. It's ironic that this phenomenon is becoming visible just as the sentence on Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo is passed down. This time, it wasn't just the obligatory foreign correspondents and diplomats standing in front of the courthouse where China's communist leadership staged his show trial. Many more carried banners and called for Xiaobo's release, risking arrest themselves. Only a handful found their way into the courtroom. But they still showed that the state's intimidation doesn't work as well as it used to."

"This new trend is not limited to classic political protests like the constitutional reforms Liu advocated. Brave lawyers from the Weiquan civil rights movement defend the victims of all sorts of bureaucratic abuses. And they defend each other: When a lawyer was jailed recently in Chongqing, his colleagues traveled from Beijing to help him."

"The number of peaceful and violent protests is also rising in China. When it comes to issues like the building of garbage incinerators and chemical factories, the Chinese people are paying no attention to the ban on protests. Farmers light police stations on fire when their land is taken from them. And on the Internet, the Chinese articulate anger over food contamination scandals, forced resettlements and other injustices."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"The court scheduled the trial during the Christmas holidays in the hope that the Western press would be on vacation. The decision to make an example out of Liu without any collateral damage didn't work out though. Brave dissidents used foreign Internet servers to complain about their 'scurrilous' government. In Chinese Internet forums, some referred to 'the new Vaclav Havel' or 'a Chinese Mandela.' Even more alarming for Beijing, which was betting on the cowardice and economic interest of Western governments, was how upset the politicians of the European Union, and in Berlin, and in Washington, were over the farcical verdict."

"The Communist Party's functionaries have carefully nurtured their image as modern, responsible leaders of a rising world power. The judge who sentenced Liu -- who turned 54 on Monday -- to stay in jail until June 2020 for writing six Internet articles and for his contributions to "Charter '08" (editor's note: a manifesto calling for more political freedoms in China) has sent a devastating signal. China's thin veneer is cracked."

-- Andrew Curry
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