A dissident who defends and fights for us all

Thirty-five years ago, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the world’s pre-eminent peace prize to the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov. In the weeks following the announcement, Sakharov’s name became the object of obsessive derision in the Soviet Union on television, in newspapers, in statements by “representatives of the working class” and in all other outlets through which the regime made known the unanimous “will of the people.”

By Natan Sharansky

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Published: Mon 25 Oct 2010, 9:57 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:30 AM

During those difficult days, I took a taxi to Sakharov’s summer home 30 minutes outside Moscow. The cab driver drove a hard bargain, took his money and we got underway. It was only on the way back that he realised whom I had visited and began to grow agitated and impatient to release his passenger.

When I finally stepped out of the taxi, the driver turned to me, returned the money I had paid him and said, “I wish you and your friend all success.” Tires screeching, he sped away.

The announcement last week that the Chinese scholar and jailed democracy activist Liu Xiaobo had been awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize is a reminder that in an authoritarian state the voice of the people is to be found not in the frenzied public claims of the regime, but among nervous taxi drivers and unnoticed dissidents.

Now, as then, the award was greeted with official bluster and threats. China’s Foreign Ministry called the announcement a “desecration” of the Nobel, named Liu a “criminal” and said the move would hurt Norway’s relations with the world’s second-largest economy.

While Beijing blustered to the world, however, the regime worked desperately to ensure silence at home. Chinese media and major Web sites carried no reports about the first Nobel Prize ever awarded to a Chinese national. According to media reports, even CNN was blacked out whenever Liu was discussed, as were SMS messages and Internet forums containing his name or the phrase “Nobel peace prize.”

Many commentators in the West have questioned the wisdom of the Nobel Committee’s decision, suggesting it does not serve the cause of world peace to disrupt China’s already troubled relations with the West. What, they wonder, is the connection between Liu’s advocacy of democratic rights and the Nobel Committee’s mission of world peace? Are the Chinese ready, they ask, for the “Western” style of democracy advocated by Liu? Different regime, different dissident, same old story.

It happens to every dictatorship. To survive, an authoritarian state must dominate the public discourse and expend vast energies on policing what is said and by whom. Yet, despite its best efforts, time always works against the oppressor. With each passing year, more and more citizens come to realise the growing rift between the regime’s rhetoric and their own political reality. As its popularity shrinks, the regime must employ ever greater levels of dissimulation to maintain power, thus further eroding its support among the people.

Trapped in this cycle, the regime deploys its most dependable weapon in the struggle for unassailable dominion — an external threat, real or imagined, that can unify the people and justify draconian security measures at home. This is the reason that tension between nations is so inextricably tied to oppression and instability within a nation.

Compared to our situation in the Soviet Union four decades ago, the Chinese of today possess vast access to news and information about their country and government. The KGB couldn’t censor our homemade pamphlets; how will China censor the Internet? Already, this is forcing Beijing to invest ever more resources in a frenetic race to maintain its grip on the public debate. As it feels threatened from within, the regime will grow ever more obsessed with not showing weakness to the outside world on issues ranging from Taiwan to Tibet, from North Korea to its ever-expanding naval deployments.

Domestic freedom is the only sure cure for this tendency of authoritarian regimes toward spiraling belligerence. As China wields ever greater influence in world affairs, as its power to contribute to global security and development — and to disrupt them — grows steadily, it becomes ever more critical for world peace that we stand fast in our support for the fundamental rights of its citizens.

The long-term path to peace does not depend on signed agreements with authoritarian regimes — even if these, too, are often celebrated by the Nobel Committee — but on supporting the campaign for freedom in every society. It is not an exaggeration to say that the future freedom and security of Americans and Europeans will depend on the present-day freedom of the Chinese.

Thirty-five years ago, the Nobel Committee sent a clear message that the free world was on our side. This gave renewed strength to dissidents in a time of persecution and imprisonment. No less important, this message was heard by millions of silent sympathisers and served as an unspoken rallying cry that is helping to hollow out the once-impregnable edifice of the regime’s authority. When the Soviet system finally caved in under the weight of its impossible contradictions, the members of the Nobel Committee could justifiably feel that they had done their part to bring about a safer, more peaceful world.

The judgment of history will not be as confused as today’s commentators. Each time we support freedom, each time we break a single shackle on an oppressed people’s chains, we enhance our own safety. It is the dissidents, not the diplomats, who will be remembered as humanity’s champions of peace. Liu Xiaobo deserves the unflinching support of the West not only because he yearns to bring freedom to China, but because his struggle ensures freedom for the rest of us.

Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident and political prisoner, is an Israeli politician and the author, most recently, of “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror”


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