Time for China to Take Its Place

By Rowan Callick

We have witnessed in recent days an extraordinary event, the ripples of which will keep spreading through our world for months and years.

No, not the WikiLeaks cables, interesting as they are. The epochal event is the empty chair.

The poetic symbolism of honouring, in the dignified and moving Nobel Peace Prize ceremony on Friday, an empty chair on which the award for Liu Xiaobo was placed exquisitely captures the significance of this honour.

The weight of the event was magnified immeasurably by Liu, one of the most civil and wise people I have interviewed, being jailed, and his wife Liu Xia and all their closest supporters being banned from leaving China.

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The ruling Communist Party drew far greater attention to itself as a crucial actor in this sphere of peace, freedom and justice - with many of its actions in repressing Liu and his colleagues taken in defiance of China's constitution. China has engaged healthily and fully in the global economy. This is the shift, led by Deng Xiaoping 32 years ago, that has driven China's wonderful new prosperity. But while Chinese people have won greater personal freedoms, and China has become assiduous in attending multilateral meetings, it is not playing the role it could or should - the role that World Bank chief Bob Zoellick described as that of a responsible stakeholder in big global issues.

This is because its ruling party remains riveted by anxiety about its legitimacy. It worries that any debate anywhere about governance may threaten that legitimacy and thus continued rule at home.

So Beijing battles relentlessly to prevent interference in the domestic affairs of countries run far worse than China itself, concerned that if the world supports change in those rogue nations, the resulting wind will fill the sails of such interfering busybodies.

The empty chair in Oslo's Town Hall last Friday was not only that of Liu, but of China itself. The world is still waiting for China to play its proper, full role in international affairs. The perversity of such a successful, civilised nation playing a dominant role as a backer - if sometimes merely by default - of cruel, failed or failing states is intensely frustrating.

China attempted to deflect attention by launching its own Confucius Prize, awarded the day before to Lien Chan, a Kuomintang (Nationalist) politician in Taiwan involved in the rapprochement between Taiwan and China. But the organisers failed to let Lien know, or to persuade him to attend. So the award in the very un-Confucian shape of a bundle of renminbi notes worth $15,000, was received instead by a six-year-old girl, the angel of peace.

Recent WikiLeaks cables on Burma and North Korea underline the importance of persuading China to fill that empty chair as a member of the global community.

George W. Bush got more than a few things wrong in his presidency, but he was right to brand North Korea as a founding member of the Axis of Evil. Now it looks as if Burma is vying to replace Iraq in that triumvirate, with Iran the third member.

What the Burma and North Korea regimes, especially, have in common is that they receive crucial backing from Beijing.

The WikiLeaks cables underline the immense threats to the peace and lives of much of the world that emanate from the North Korean crusade to promote nuclear weapons proliferation.

The hand-wringing response by the rest of the world to the military strikes by North Korea against the South this year, and its rapid upgrading of its nuclear capacity, provides a deeply troubling backdrop to last week's revelations.

If Burma's recent election has brought with it genuine accountability and openness, some hope might have emerged that the new government there might respond to international anxiety about these nuclear alarms. But it was a Clayton's election, and it responded with its usual dead bat.

Accommodating approaches to North Korea and to Burma have not made dents on those countries' core governance.

Is there a plan B for Burma or, more worryingly, North Korea? One fears not. The only plan B that will defuse this dangerous international trend is for China to change. When Liu Xiaobo can receive his Nobel award in a way that also naturally honours his own nation, China will fill that empty seat in global governance.

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