As David Lindsay has asked the question, “What is Liu Xiaobo for?”, perhaps I can provide part of an answer. On the one hand, he is one of the authors of Charter 08, which says all the right sorts of things that will appeal to most Western liberal democrats, and his statement read out at the Nobel Peace Price ceremony in his absence includes an appeal to freedom of expression with which most of us would probably agree. Then again, his old organization was funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, which is never a good sign, and Liu has made arguments endorsing the Iraq war, among others, and democracy promotion through warfare.
Unfortunately, it seems that on most political questions Liu Xiaobo has fully adopted the conventional views that “pro-Western” dissidents are expected to take. Where Solzhenitsyn denounced the West for its decadence and materialism, and rooted his critique of the Soviet system in older Russian traditions, Liu Xiaobo would seem to be a Chinese version of those Russian liberals who disdain most of their countrymen and their national traditions in the name of a democratic universalism that aims to reduce all nations to what George Bush once called the “single model of human progress.” He has called for the thoroughgoing Westernization of China both culturally and politically.
Obviously, none of this remotely justifies his arbitrary detention, and I can even understand why a dissident against a truly oppressive authoritarian regime would make the mistake of identifying so strongly with America that he recklessly endorses every U.S. policy. We should also recognize that this sort of wholesale “pro-Western” attitude among Chinese dissidents cuts off would-be political reformers from most of their fellow countrymen and makes it that much easier for the Chinese government to portray these dissidents as hostile to China. The more that such dissidents say the things that most Westerners want to hear, the less relevant they are likely to be to reforming their country’s politics, and the more that they become cause celebres in the West with minimal influence where they might do the most good.
It’s worth emphasizing that Liu Xiaobo’s detention is obviously, purely political. There is no question that he is being held as a political prisoner for the “crime” of expressing views that the regime finds unacceptable, and for no other reason. For some reason, I haven’t seen anyone arguing that Liu’s detention, or the detention of so many others like him, should have any impact on U.S.-China relations. Presumably, most people understand that harming U.S. interests for the sake of “speaking out” to no purpose about the treatment of Liu and others like him will accomplish nothing, but this is just the sort of useless hectoring that some hawks have been urging in the wake of the Khodorkovsky trial.