Jailing the Messengers

WASHINGTON, DC – As China’s clout in global affairs grows, the world is watching more closely than ever to see what kind of great power it will become. Next month, when jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo receives the Nobel Peace Prize, attention will be drawn away from the more encouraging aspects of what China’s leaders like to call their country’s “rise,” and toward their persistent mistreatment of its most outspoken citizens. Already, Chinese officials’ ham-handed response to the award has undercut their cherished – and lavishly financed – mission to project China’s “soft power” around the globe.

Liu won the prize because his lifelong commitment to political activism makes him exceptional. But we ought to pay equally close attention to another jailed Chinese activist, one whose plight at the hands of China’s justice system is just as troubling as Liu’s – and far more revealing of the boundaries of permissible dissent.

A Beijing court recently convicted Zhao Lianhai, a 38-year-old former advertising salesman, of “using a popular social issue to incite a mob…to seriously disrupt social order,” and sentenced him to two and a half years in prison.

Unlike Liu, Zhao had not called for change in China’s political system. Rather, he had spent two years rallying around the almost boringly uncontroversial notion that his family and many others deserve justice from the Sanlu Dairy Group, a company that gave their children kidney stones by illegally doctoring its milk powder with the industrial chemical melamine.