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Last Friday, an empty chair at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony was a poignant reminder that despite its many achievements, China remains a house divided, a nation at war with itself.

FOR more than 20 years, Liu Xiaobo, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient, has peacefully advocated respect for human rights, the rule of law and democracy in China.

For this, he has been condemned as a criminal and imprisoned.

Since he was not able to personally receive this most prestigious of awards, his chair in Oslo was left empty as a symbolic gesture.

Nevertheless, he now takes pride of place alongside the likes of Aung San Suu Kyi, Shirin Ebadi and Nelson Mandela as icons of mankind’s long struggle for freedom.

China responded to the award with fierce indignation. The Nobel Committee, and those who cheered the award, were accused of double standards, interference in China’s domestic affairs and supporting a criminal.

In addition, China lobbied a number of countries to boycott the Oslo ceremony.

It must have been cold comfort, however, that the list mostly included countries like Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, Kazakhstan and others from the human rights hall of shame.

It is true that the human rights agenda, as it is pursued today, is sometimes hypocrisy dressed up as virtue.

Democratic nations are too readily outraged by the faults of their adversaries but indifferent to the transgressions of their friends, and that is a disgrace. But that should not blind us to what is happening in China today.

China has undoubtedly been on an amazing growth trajectory. Within the span of a few decades, millions have been lifted out of poverty.

The Chinese people have never been more prosperous, never more endowed with opportunity as they are today.

Certainly China has gone far beyond what any of us who lived in that country during the late 1970s, barely a few years after the Cultural Revolution had ended, could have ever imagined.

History might well consider China’s progress over these last few decades as the most remarkable transformation ever achieved by a nation.

China’s leaders must be given credit for much of this.

But there is a dark side, too – China is also a nation that is increasingly at odds with the aspirations of so many of its own people.

In Tibet, for example, an ancient people are wilting under the heavy hand of Beijing, their culture and religion being inexorably erased by massive inward migration. From time to time, riots have broken out, the latest being in 2008.

In the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, Muslim Uighurs are struggling to survive.

In 2009, riots broke out in Urumqi, the regional capital.

Today, more than 50,000 cameras are trained on mosques and Uighur neighbourhoods as part of an effort to keep a watchful eye on its restive population.

Religious groups also suffer at the hands of their government. Christians and Falun Gong followers have been persecuted, tortured and killed for years.

Too many now languish in jail simply because of their religious convictions.

Across China, many brave individuals who champion better environmental protection, food safety, building standards, accountability, and justice and human rights issues find themselves condemned as enemies of the State.

Thousands of demonstrations and civil society campaigns covering a host of different issues are routinely and often violently suppressed.

In addition, there is the all-pervasive censorship of media, the Internet and other forms of communication.

It is indicative of a government that is afraid of its people discovering for themselves the truth in all its different shades.

While many in the international community have lent their support to human rights reform in China, none have been more forthright and courageous than China’s own human rights campaigners.

It gives the lie to the government’s claim that human rights issues are simply a Western construct.

Human rights activists like Liu, Gao Zhisheng, Ai Weiwei and Tsering Woeser, to name a few, continue to endure much persecution and harassment in their struggle for a better China.

They deserve our respect and admiration. Their struggle is our struggle, too, because freedom anywhere contributes to freedom everywhere.

There are signs, however, that the cry for change may be getting through to China’s leaders.

Premier Wen Jiabao himself recently admitted in an interview on CNN (that was subsequently censored in China) that the “people’s wishes for and need for democracy and freedom are irresistible”.

A group of eminent party stalwarts, including the former secretary to Chairman Mao Zedong, also recently issued a bold call for greater freedom.

They demanded that the government and party abide by constitutional civil rights guarantees.

As well, they criticised as scandalous the Party’s practice of “[affirming] in principle and denying in actuality the freedoms that the people want”.

China will be stronger, greater, more influential and a true world leader when its government finds a way to make peace with its own people and satisfy their longing for genuine political change.

Let’s hope that China’s leaders, who have done such a sterling job in bringing about economic and social transformation, will now positively respond to the political challenge of freedom and democracy.

In the meantime, the empty chair in Oslo will serve as a reminder that the world expects better from a great nation like China.

Datuk Dennis Ignatius is a 36-year veteran of the Malaysian foreign service. He served in London, Beijing and Washington and was ambassador to Chile and Argentina. He retired as High Commissioner to Canada in July 2008.