What does Suu Kyi release mean for China's dissidents?

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Image caption,
Supporters say Ms Suu Kyi's strength lies in the fact she has the hearts and minds of the Burmese

China appears to be playing down the release of Burma's pro-democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

Officials are perhaps aware that the issue could lead to awkward questions about their country's own political system.

This year's peace prize winner is Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for calling for political change.

China will not want activists agitating for the release of Mr Liu now his fellow Nobel laureate has tasted freedom.

China's foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei declined to directly answer a question about the country's reaction to the release of Ms Suu Kyi.

Speaking at a regular news briefing on Tuesday, he said China hoped Burma - also known as Myanmar - could maintain "peace and stability".

That is a particular concern for Beijing's top leaders as they have invested billions of dollars in infrastructure projects in Burma.

China's official media has followed a similar line.

It is reporting Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest, but often stressing the negative aspects of her history.

"Since 1987, Ms Suu Kyi has been accused of breaching the law on three occasions and was put under house arrest," said the presenter on one news broadcast on China Central Television.

The presenter said Ms Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, had lost its legitimacy because it failed to register for the recent national elections.

Xinhua, China's state-run news agency, was equally careful about its wording when describing her.

A long profile released on Saturday referred to the pro-democracy activist as "a noted political figure". There was no word about her Nobel Peace Prize.

There was at least one publication though that dared to speak of Aung San Suu Kyi in more human terms.

Caixin, a media group run by one of China's most admired journalists, Hu Shuli, noted her house arrest had cost the 65-year-old her freedom and her family.

"No matter which direction Myanmar moves after its election, this female politician will definitely be a part of it," said a Caixin report.

It referred to her as the "Asian Mandela", linking her to the South African leader who helped end apartheid in his home country.

Hearts and minds

China's government will not want Aung San Suu Kyi linked to any other cause, particularly that of Liu Xiaobo.

When the BBC asked foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei if China would now consider releasing Mr Liu, he was dismissive.

"You must be very well versed with our position [on this issue]," was his reply.

China believes Mr Liu, who called for peaceful political reform in a manifesto called Charter '08, is a criminal and should not have been honoured by the Nobel Peace Prize committee.

Some of the comments in internet chat rooms could make the Chinese government uncomfortable.

"She is the pride of Asia, the symbol of freedom, democracy and human rights," said one contributor.

"She does not have power, money or a government position, but she has the hearts and minds of the Burmese people," said another.

But as Professor David Zweig, of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, put it, China does not have to worry too much about calls from inside the country for the release of this year's peace prize winner.

He is not nearly as important a figure as Aung San Suu Kyi, said Prof Zweig.

"She won an election (in 1990) and can mobilise hundreds of thousands of people, but most Chinese people don't even know what Liu Xiaobo looks like," he said.

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