Volatile 2013 ahead for Putin’s ‘lawfare state’

A fractious opposition, divided elite, acute demographic pressures, and a frustrated middle class could lead to a volatile 2013 in Russia, says a leading analyst.

“If 2012 was all about politics, 2013 will also be about economics,” Brian Whitmore, an analyst with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, writes for The Atlantic:

The Russian economy, the cliché goes, rests on two pillars — oil and gas. And both will come under increasing pressure as the year unfolds. World oil prices, currently hovering between $90 and $100 per barrel, are expected to be volatile for the foreseeable future. And any sharp drop could prove catastrophic for the Russian economy….

The flush days when petrodollars could power Russia’s economy and lubricate Putin’s political machine are coming to a close. How the political system responds to these challenges will be a key question in 2013.

Russian President Vladimir Putin “has spoken of the need for a new and uniquely Russian ideology, one that stands apart from, and explicitly rejects, the values of liberal democracy,” note two prominent observers.

But his endorsement of a ban on adoptions by Americans is “a display of callousness unusual even by Putin’s standards,” albeit a move consistent with the regime’s growing authoritarianism, write David J. Kramer and Arch Puddington, respectively president and vice president of research at Freedom House:

Since his formal return to Russia’s highest office in May, he has launched a similar drive to destroy his political opposition as well as perceived adversaries within civil society, pushing through measures that have broadened the definition of treason, increased penalties for protesting against the government, recriminalized defamation and imposed a new round of restrictions on civil-society organizations.

Putin has blamed the United States for his and, by extension, Russia’s problems. He has accused America of provoking anti-Putin demonstrations and expelled the U.S. aid mission… He has made it illegal for Russian nongovernmental organizations to receive U.S. funding if they are engaged in “political activities”; similarly, the Yakovlev law makes it illegal to serve as head of a Russian organization if one has dual ­Russian-American citizenship — a provision clearly targeting the 85-year-old head of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Lyudmila Alekseyeva (above, right).*

“Given all this, it is heartening to see many Russians, including the foreign and education ministers, oppose this latest abuse of power,” Kramer and Puddington note. “At the same time, the absence of a serious response from the world’s leading democracies is troubling.”

Given such trends, the president’s promise to restore rule of law is understandably dismissed as providing only a “veneer of legality to paper over Putin’s personalized system of authoritarian rule,” writes William Partlett is an associate-in-law at Columbia Law School.

But Putin’s “lawfare state” is no innovation, he observes:

As the saying attributed to multiple Latin American strongmen goes, “For my friends, anything—for my enemies, the law.” This lawfare system is seductively simple: in return for elite adherence to informal rules and personal loyalty, the state tolerates corrupt activities. Meanwhile, the regime closely documents this corruption, building dossiers on key members of the system. If these players violate the informal rules of the game, compromising information is passed to the formal legal system, which then goes after them.

The system amounts to a set of informal contracts in which “receipts from bribery and embezzlement would be granted in exchange for effective implementation of central directives and a share of the proceeds,” according to Yale University’s Keith Darden.

Putin’s argument that the Kremlin is crafting a quintessentially Russian form of democracy is echoed by Russian Constitutional Court chairman, Valery Zorkin.

“Zorkin has argued that judges, in interpreting the constitution, should draw as much on Russia’s unique history and heritage as from universal democratic values,” Partlett notes, writing in The National Interest:

This uniquely Russian context, which he calls Russia’s “fundamental reality,” necessarily includes “authoritarian elements” that can ensure Russia’s stable “transition” from “a lawless past to a new democracy.” He explains that the constitution “forms the basic regulatory framework in a constantly changing world and must be considered in the context of this world. Its principles . . . must be interpreted and filled with a rich concrete social content relevant to each new historical stage of development.” That is why, he adds, any discussion of the constitution’s meaning and implementation “cannot be separated from politics.”

“This authoritarian version of ‘living constitutionalism’ is broadly influential among many members of the Constitutional Court,” says Partlett, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution:

In fact, recent court opinions have upheld progovernment legislation in part based on the argument that Russia is at a stage in its democratic development when a strong president is required. … [But] Given his deep understanding of the late czarist conservative-liberal intellectual tradition, however, Zorkin must realize that Putin has done little to construct a law-based state as a vehicle for gradual change. In fact, Putin’s lawfare state bears no resemblance to the kind of strong German-style rechtsstaat advocated by the conservative liberals.

“Leading Russian economists like Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich and former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin have stressed the need to diversify the economy away from its dangerous dependence on nonrenewable energy. … But despite all the rhetoric, there has been little real action,” notes Whitmore:

Part of this is due to fierce resistance from powerful figures in the Russian elite with ties to the energy industry, like Rosneft CEO Igor Sechin, a longtime Putin crony. But the reasons for inaction are actually much more fundamental. Diversifying and modernizing Russia’s economy would entail a degree of decentralization and the subsequent development of alternative centers of economic power. According to Edward Lucas this, in turn, would eventually lead to new centers of political power with more independence from the Kremlin than Putin appears willing to tolerate.

Economic dislocation could generate political re-alignments, observers suggest.

“Real fragmentation is taking place by age because Medvedev rejuvenated the system of administration,” prominent Moscow-based sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya told the daily Nezavisimaya gazeta this summer. “The more conservative older part of the elite was irritated by this and moved toward Putin. And those who were younger moved toward Medvedev in hopes of a quick career if Medvedev remained for a second term.”

The young guns who came in with Medvedev are also ideologically inclined toward greater pluralism. …..The generational gap in the elite is mirrored by a similar one in society as the cohort born after the fall of the Soviet Union — and which has only faint memories of the chaos of the 1990s — comes of age.

“This group of citizens sees itself as not only post-Soviet, but non-Soviet,” says Masha Lipman of the Moscow Carnegie Center. “They don’t consider themselves to be vassals of the state. They are more free thinking.”

“This process is irreversible,” she says. “And as Russia continues to urbanize and cities become centers for younger people, this process will only accelerate.”

“With resources declining and no economic diversification program in sight, the authorities appear to have concluded that they need to reform the country’s creaking social welfare system,” writes RFE/RL’s Whitmore. “But such a move is certain to be politically volatile, especially since Putin’s main base of support is now the rural poor and the working classes.”

Moreover, as moderate opposition activists come to understand that a colored revolution in Russia is unlikely, they are more likely to place their hopes in evolutionary change. And in the event that the Putin regime begins to look dangerously shaky, overtures from inside the halls of power to the opposition will become more likely.

“We are going to see more people toying with defection to the opposition, people opening up back channels,” says Mark Galeotti, the author of the blog “In Moscow’s Shadows” and a professor at New York University. “We’re going to see the economic elite trying to reach out [to the opposition] and this is going to be very dangerous for the state.”

“I don’t think we are at the end of the Putin era, but we are at the beginning of the end,” says veteran Russia analyst Edward Lucas, author of the recently published book, Deception.

The Moscow Helsinki Group is supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. Lyudmila Alekseyeva was a recipient of the NED’s 2004 Democracy Award.

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‘Hey John Kerry, free Le Quoc Quan’

…….. says The Economist.

Kerry, the decorated Vietnam War vet-turned-peacenik [and presumptive designee for Secretary of State] , is hugely popular in Vietnam, widely praised for the key role he and John McCain played in the 1990s in settling the POW-MIA issue and re-establishing diplomatic and trade relations. Not only does he enjoy excellent direct relations with Vietnam’s communist leadership, he is personally famous. ….This would put Mr Kerry in an excellent position to lobby for small but meaningful changes in Vietnamese policy, such as, say, freeing the human-rights lawyer Le Quoc Quan (above).

By arresting one of Vietnam’s best-known dissidents and bloggers, the authorities are “raising the stakes in the Communist-run nation’s crackdown on Internet criticism of its one-party rule and potentially worsening the country’s relations with the United States and other important trading partners,” one observer suggests.

Quan’s arrest is the latest step in a “political vendetta” waged by Vietnamese authorities, said Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch. “[They] have been pursuing a political vendetta against Le Quoc Quan for several years, and now we see a tax evasion charge coming out of nowhere, just as in the Dieu Cay case previously,” Robertson told RFA.

Quan was previously arrested in 2007 for three months on his return from a five-month Reagan-Fascell fellowship at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.

“He writes a popular blog exposing human rights abuses and other issues not covered by the state media,” the BBC notes:

In an interview with the Associated Press news agency in September, he said that he and his family and staff had received frequent warnings from the authorities. But he pledged to carry on speaking out against the government and in support of multi-party democracy and freedom of speech.

With Quan’s arrest, the Vietnamese police are “escalating a crackdown on those who speak out against Vietnam’s one-party, authoritarian rule,” reports suggest:

In August this year Quan was beaten by police in an attack which prompted Human Rights Watch to call for a full investigation. In early December Quan told AFP that his family was under “much pressure… It is terrible”, with both his brother and a female cousin being held in detention.

In addition to his blogs, Quan was heavily involved in a string of anti-China demonstrations last year over Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

State media reported that Quan was charged with tax evasion – an allegation his wife, Nguyen Thi Thu Hien, denies.

“I think my husband was arrested because of his political views as he often calls for democracy and a multiparty political system,” Ms. Hien said.

“Let’s be clear: Le Quoc Quan is not in jail because of tax evasion,” says The Economist:

This is his third stint in jail. …He’s in jail now because Vietnam is engaged in a bout of anti-blogger disciplinary activity, clearly related to the country’s lackluster economic performance, corruption scandals and power struggles in the intertwined world of government-business cronyism, and rising popular dissatisfaction.

Quan’s detention follows the sentencing of several other bloggers as Vietnam’s Communist authorities “step up their rigorous policing of the Internet,” writes the Wall Street Journal’s James Hookway.

“Officials appear to worry about the organizing power of the Web, and have sporadically blocked social-networking sites such as FacebookFB +4.96% and tried popularize their own, state-controlled alternatives instead. They have good reason to be concerned,” he notes:

As penetration rates quickly rise —more than a third of Vietnamese are now online, a higher percentage than in Indonesia or Thailand—dissidents increasingly are going online to discuss what they view as the country’s failings in its rush to become a modern, industrialized economy.

In recent months, several prominent blogs have emerged to criticize the lavish spending habits and lifestyles of top Communist Party officials, embarrassing the government and prompting Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to attempt to muzzle online criticism.

So far, Vietnamese authorities have focused on legal threats to quash dissent. Technology analysts say the country lacks the sophisticated Internet monitoring and blocking technology employed by China. Hanoi instead resorts to making an example of dissident bloggers, and is working on new laws that would force Vietnamese to use their real names online—a move that Internet-driven businesses worry will stifle the growth of online commerce.

“Like other Vietnamese exercising their rights to free expression, many of the country’s growing corps of bloggers are increasingly threatened, assaulted, or even jailed for peacefully expressing their views,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “We are honored to amplify the voices the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party wants to prevent from participating in public discussions of Vietnam’s many social and political problems,” Adams said.

“Vietnam has a lot of dissidents in jail,” The Economist notes. “America is not going to be able to get Vietnam to stop arresting dissidents; the Communist Party is not interested in political suicide. Nor will it be able to force Vietnam to allow its citizens to do whatever they want on the internet.”

But Vietnam is dependent on American export markets and on American military and diplomatic backing in its struggle against China over maritime jurisdiction in the South China Sea. That allows America to make it clear that Vietnam will pay a limited price, in embarrassment and ebbing support, if it goes beyond certain informal lines in its oppression of dissidents. John Kerry, by virtue of his personal qualities, is in a position to draw those lines somewhat more expansively than a different secretary of state would be, one who was not considered by Vietnam to be a hero of Vietnamese-American reconciliation. He should use that position to try and get Le Quoc Quan and some of his fellow democracy activists out of jail.

RTWT

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Gulf-funded ‘Salafi surge’ behind sectarian threat to Arab transitions

The Arab awakening is having the perverse effect of empowering some of the region’s most illiberal and anti-democratic forces, says a prominent observer.

“However much the west wants Arab societies to produce leaders with whom its feels comfortable, the turmoil in the region in the past two years has allowed for the emergence of less pleasant political actors. The most worrying is the Salafis, the ultraconservative Sunni sect whose objective is the establishment of sharia, or strict Islamic law,” writes Roula Khalaf in a must-read FT survey:

The fall of authoritarian regimes has offered Salafis, a disparate movement that had hitherto maintained a low profile, a rare opportunity to organise and agitate…

The Salafi surge is seen by secular-minded Arabs as the biggest threat to democratisation in the region, with the Islamists’ Saudi-style vision particularly damaging for the development of women’s rights. But the Salafis are also a significant complicating factor in the more moderate Islamists’ early experiments in governing.

Mainstream groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood find themselves pulled towards more hardline views by the Salafis while also facing pressure for greater moderation by the liberal opposition.

“The major challenge to stability in the Arab world … lies only partially in the transition to democracy from autocracy,” says Kamran Bokhari of Stratfor, the political consultancy. “Greater than that is the challenge mainstream Islamists face from a complex and divided Salafi movement.”

Salafists in Syria, for instance, have benefitted from generous funding from Gulf sources that has facilitated the spreading of their ideologically crude but appealing message, according to a recent report of the International Crisis Group.

“Salafism offers answers that others could not. These include a straightforward, accessible form of legitimacy and sense of purpose at a time of substantial suffering and confusion; a simple, expedient way to define the enemy as a non-Muslim, apostate regime, as well as access to funding and weapons,” says the report. “At a time when [rebel] groups struggled to survive against a powerful, ruthless foe and believe themselves both isolated and abandoned, such [Salafi] assets made an immediate, tangible difference.”

In this respect, the ultraconservatives have become important conduits for illiberal external actors to influence the political trajectory of the Arab revolts, often in a sectarian direction.

“The militantly anti-western sects known as Salafists represent Saudi Arabia’s most passionate potential allies. They have definite affinities with the Wahhabi sect of Saudi Arabia; their clerics and adherents attend Saudi schools,” writes analyst Brian Downing:

Salafi forces were central to the anti-coalition insurgency in Iraq and continue to oppose Shia rule. They are also parts of the Syrian rebellion which is on the verge of ousting the Assad government. Egyptian Salafis hurriedly patched together a political movement after President Mubarak’s ouster last year and won 25 percent of the popular vote in recent elections.

Observers noted their generous gifts to the poor in the weeks before the vote but were at a loss to determine how they afforded such largesse. Suspicion naturally fell on Riyadh.

In Tunisia, Salafists have emerged as the principal threat to the country’s once-promising transition.

“The ruling Ennahda Party has yet to distance itself from the radicals,” notes one observer:

Ennahda founder Rachid Ghannouchi even encouraged “our young Salafists” to patiently embark on a long march. “Why the hurry?” he said in a video of a meeting with Salafists. “The Islamists must fill the country with their organizations, establish Koran schools everywhere and invite religious imams.” The video was secretly recorded and posted online, but Ghannouchi claims his words were taken out of context.

“In Tunisia, Islamic activism in general was impossible under an extremely repressive regime, and the Salafis were very loose networks of young people with no identified leadership, no institution, nothing,” says Thomas Pierret, an Islamist expert at the University of Edinburgh. “So in the end, you have thugs who make trouble at universities and attack people in streets.”

Some previous authoritarian regimes suppressed political manifestations of Salafism, notes the FT’s Khalaf:

But others, including Egypt, adopted a more complex approach, clamping down at times but also using the movement to counter more politically mature mainstream groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Under the ousted Hosni Mubarak regime in Cairo, Salafi television stations were licensed and some preachers became household names, appealing particularly to the poor. The Salafis also took up some of the same tactics as the Muslim Brotherhood, setting up charities that provide social services to impoverished areas.

“Before the revolution we were there, doing social work, our ideology spreading by the day, and we were not violent so our movement also reassured people,” says Mohamed Nour, a party representative of the Salafist Al-Nour party. 

That party’s former chairman resigned this week to launch a new Al-Watan party in a move that some analysts believe reflects the rival Muslim Brotherhood’s success in its efforts to divide Egypt’s Salafists.

“The new party is part of a proliferation of religion-based political parties [and] …it could indicate divisions among Islamists as they compete for seats in the legislature and a role in Egypt’s evolving political struggle between more secular-minded political parties and Islamists,” observers suggest. “It also reflects the dispute within the Islamist groups who struggle to reconcile democratic maneuvering with religious ideology.”

While some Arab secular and liberal activists would like to see the Salafists suppressed, others contend repression would be counterproductive.

But Tunisia’s leading Islamist leader, Rached Ghannouchi, has argued that Salafis must not be demonised, even if their religious thinking is misguided.

“It’s not easy,” says Omar Ashour of the University of Exeter. “Any attempt to ban them or crack down on them will cause more harm in the long term because they will turn to violence, and you will see the sense of victimisation more ingrained. At the same time, any tolerance to attempted infringements on women’s rights and minority rights … will also be damaging in long term.”

His expectation is that the movement will damage itself as more open political systems take root in the region.

“Salafi [ideology] was growing because it was more or less never allowed to be under public scrutiny or in power institutions,” he says. “Once it gets there, with all its promises to relieve economic problems and guide society to heaven, I think it will start dwindling.”

That would perhaps create the space and opportunity for liberal and secular democrats to move away from their safe havens and comfort zones to conduct their own welfare-based outreach efforts to promote and entrench democratic ideas amongst region’s the impoverished, illiterate masses.

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After Chávez, ‘democratic process’ vital to restoring US-Venezuela links

“Supporters and opponents of President Hugo Chávez alike nervously welcomed the New Year,” AP reports, “left on edge by shifting signals from the government about the Venezuelan leader’s condition three weeks after cancer surgery in Cuba.”

Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Chávez’s designated heir, said in a televised interview in Cuba that Chávez faces “a complex and delicate situation”:

Maduro’s remarks about the president came at the end of an interview in which he praised his government’s programmes at length, recalled the history of the Cuban revolution and touched on what he called the long-term strength of Mr Chávez’s socialist Bolivian Revolution movement. He mentioned that Fidel Castro, former Cuban president had been in the hospital, and praised Cuba.

Maduro is considered to be the leader of the radical, pro-Cuba faction within the politically fragmented Chávista movement.

Roberta S. Jacobson, the senior US State Department official for Latin America, reportedly held a long telephone conversation with Maduro in November, when the possibility of restoring ambassadors was discussed.

Maduro “may be buying time to consolidate his leadership at home,” writes analyst Andreas Oppenheimer:

A hard-liner who is very close to Cuba’s dictatorship, Maduro may have talked to Jacobson to send a message within the polarized Chávista movement that he’s in charge, before any internal power struggle in Venezuela breaks out in the open. Or he may have accepted the U.S. offer to talk at the suggestion of Cuba, whose military regime is terrified about losing Venezuela’s critical subsidies if Chávez dies. The Cubans may have told Maduro: “Make a truce with Washington, because the last thing you need while you resolve internal government power struggles at home is to fight with the Gringos.”

Some observers believe the restoration of full diplomatic relations would be premature. Former US ambassador Roger Noriega cautioned against “legitimizing a narco-authoritarian regime” in Venezuela.

Analysts expect Chávez’s death will be the catalyst for a factional fight within the ruling coalition, setting ideological radicals around Maduro against military nationalists associated with the President of Congress, Diosdado Cabello.

“The struggle for a successor is in full swing. Maduro and Cabello, Chávez’s two potential heirs, represent two opposing strands of Chávismo, his brand of left-wing nationalism,” writes analyst Boris Mu?oz:

Chávismo is a political movement with marked divisions between its military and civilian wings. …. But the civilian-military division reflects an even deeper one based on two differing conceptualizations of the Bolivarian revolution: a nationalist revolution or a socialist one based on the Cuban model. 

Maduro … has been the Minister for Foreign Affairs for the past six years and has been an obedient international operator for Chávez. His negotiations have been instrumental in forging alliances with the heterodox regimes of Iran, Syria, Belarus, and the Latin American partners of the Bolivarian revolution—Argentina, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua…

Both Cabello and Maduro are loyal to their leader, but many think that Cabello would have no hesitation in forging an alliance between the military and the new Venezuelan oligarchy, distancing himself from Cuba, and avoiding extending socialism à la Castro.

Chávismo without Chávez can only exist for a short time,” said Moises Naim, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.

“The military men who were part of Chávez’s original group are socialists but they don’t like Cuba,” Vladimir Gessen, an influential political analyst and former congressman, told Mu?oz. “They pardon Chávez’s relationship with the Castros, because it’s clear that Chávez would never let himself be manipulated by them.”

In Gessen’s analysis, Cabello would set up a militarist government based on the control exercised by the officer class over the Army and the government….. Under the tutelage of Havana, on the other hand, Maduro would intensify the Cuban socialist model, which is rejected by the nationalist military.

“That’s why the sector supporting Cabello would do everything in its power to stop Maduro becoming president,” Gessen said. To Chávistas, this prediction is a fantasy being projected by a political opposition that wants to see Maduro and Cabello pitted against each other, and an end to Chávismo.

“Right now what’s at stake is the survival of the revolution,” an insider told me. “It would be suicidal to split the party. But in the medium term there will be a struggle for power, because over the last fourteen years, Chávez has created everything in his own image. Without him at the helm, conflict between the different military and civilian interest groups will become inevitable.”

The restoration of US-Venezuelan relations should in any case be based on democratic considerations, observers suggest.

“Contrary to what U.S. hard-liners say, there’s nothing wrong with the two countries exploring ways to normalize relations,” writes analyst Andreas Oppenheimer.

“But considering that Venezuelan laws that may require new elections in the event Chávez cannot take office as scheduled on Jan. 10, one can only wish that the Obama administration adds the words ‘democratic process’ to its proposal to improve ties with Venezuela.”

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A Chinese Voice in the Wilderness: Breaking the Silence on Tibetan Self-immolations

For a fleeting moment this month, the separate human rights movements of the Han Chinese and Tibetans met at a point of solidarity, say Tenzin Palkyi and Louisa Greve. But such significant instances which build mutual trust are still few and far between.

The recent wave of self-immolations has marked a radical and tragic turn in Tibet‘s freedom struggle, with 95 Tibetans setting themselves on fire since February 2009, 81 of them confirmed dead. The Tibetan diaspora across more than ten countries marked this year’s International Human Rights Day on December 10th with large rallies calling for immediate international action to address the crisis.

Xu Zhiyong, a prominent Han Chinese lawyer and human rights advocate (left), stepped forward with a commentary in the New York Times (Tibet is Burning) that would be censored in China.  Xu’s courageous choice to speak up will only intensify the police harassment he has been experiencing on a regular basis for his pro-democracy activities and his role in many of China’s groundbreaking cases and research, including a report on 2008 protests across the Tibetan plateau.

Xu recounts his failed effort to meet the parents of Nangdrol, a Tibetan self-immolator.  He encounters many Tibetans who seem wary of his presence in their neighborhood and are reluctant to give him directions to Nangdrol’s parents’ home.  These incidents illustrate the enormous mistrust between Tibetans and Han Chinese.  Xu finally makes it to the right village only to learn that Nangdrol’s parents had moved away.

“I am sorry we Han Chinese have been silent as Nangdrol and his fellow Tibetans are dying for freedom,” Xu writes.

Many Tibetans are tremendously encouraged by Xu’s public efforts, at great risk to himself, to pay respect to one of the self-immolators, and to speak out on a sensitive issue that all too many Hans fail even to acknowledge.  Very few have dared broach the sensitive subject of Tibetan self-immolations, which the Chinese government characterizes as crimes secretly directed by external anti-China forces.

Against this backdrop, Xu’s voice is extraordinary.

A Tibetan friend praised Xu’s refusal to accept Chinese government’s propaganda on Tibet and his attempts to understand the real situation there.  He sets off on a journey to meet and converse with ordinary Tibetans and that process of inquiry he takes upon himself is remarkable.

Even more encouraging is that Xu is not the only Chinese to have tried to foster discussion of Tibetans’ experience. Despite the threats of punishment, and successful divide-and-conquer tactics of Chinese security forces to prevent movements extending solidarity, a trickle of voices have emerged among Han Chinese to speak up on Tibetan issues.

In March 2008, a group of Chinese intellectuals signed a significant public petition condemning the government’s crackdown in Tibet during the mass protests that swept across the plateau.  Four years ago, Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo and thousands of Charter 08 signatories called for a Chinese Federal Republic “within which all ethnic and religious groups can flourish.”

The authors of Charter 08 came under criticism from ethnic minorities in China, who expressed disappointment that the charter did not go farther in insisting on the specific ethnic rights necessary for cultural survival, and did not contain a stronger endorsement of ethnic nationalities’ self-governance rights.  But if Liu Xiaobo had gone as far as he wanted to in Charter 08 regarding rights of Tibetans, the first 303 signatories would have dwindled down to fewer than ten, according to Yu Jie, a prominent Chinese writer and democracy activist.

Although Xu’s words of apology and sympathy for Tibetan self-immolators are powerful, his reference to Tibet as “our shared home” reflects a larger ongoing conversation about the relationship between Tibet and China.  Underlying much of the tension between Tibetans and Han Chinese, even among those Han with the goal of a democratic China and even within the diversity of Tibetan viewpoints, is the unresolved issue of defining Tibet’s future as a truly autonomous or independent governing entity.

But Tibetans should not give up on those Chinese who are willing to brave their government’s wrath to think independently about Tibet.  Even putting aside the risk of arrest, they have treacherous ground to cover.  Chinese willing to think and speak about Tibet are also trying to do so in an environment without freedom of speech or academic freedom and they must keep in mind their audiences.  They are not only trying to speak unpleasant truths, but do so in a way that their fellow Chinese audiences can understand and find persuasive.

Earlier this year, Xu called for a new citizens’ movement to deliver China from authoritarian government to fair and just constitutional governance. He was illegally detained multiple times as a result.  He is no stranger to being disappeared over his profession as a human rights lawyer.

At this critical juncture in Tibet and China’s history, where citizens who differ in their opinions from the Chinese Communist Party are considered “dangerous elements” and imprisoned, Xu’s efforts to find a shared space between Tibetan and Chinese freedom seekers are significant.

It will take a long-term coordinated effort on the part of both Tibetans and Han Chinese to overcome mistrust.  When Chinese rights activists speak out on behalf of Tibetans, they are building a welcome foundation upon which mutual trust can be built.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has called for the 21st century to be a century of dialogue.  Xu Zhiyong, despite facing tremendous threats to his own freedom, has taken another bold step in sustaining a dialogue about realizing the “shared dream” of freedom.

It is imperative for Han Chinese and Tibetan activists alike that this conversation continues.

Tenzin Palkyi and Louisa Greve are, respectively, Asia Program Officer and Vice President, Programs – Asia, Middle East & North Africa, and Global, at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group. 

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