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Published: Tuesday, 4/12/2011

Great leap backward

CHINESE dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize six months ago, but there is no evidence he is aware of the honor. He didn't go to Oslo to receive the award or send word of his appreciation for it.

A veteran of the Tiananmen Square protests and one of the authors of a document that calls for the gradual political reform of China's one-party state, Mr. Liu has been in the custody of communist authorities since he was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2009.

The whereabouts of artist-activist Ai Weiwei also remain unknown. Chinese authorities arrested Mr. Ai last week as he attempted to leave the mainland for Hong Kong.

These cases are not outliers in a new China that is trying to make itself more palatable to the international community on human rights. Instead, they're depressingly common. Political repression and economic liberalism coexist like conjoined twins in China.

Chinese authorities have launched a campaign of intimidation, harassment, and confinement of high-profile cultural and political dissidents who were once thought to be untouchable because of their fame. The recent political unrest in North Africa and the Middle East have made China's already cautious leaders even more paranoid than usual.

Mr. Ai's family has no idea where the artist has been taken or what he's been charged with. A government official would say only that the dissident could be charged with "economic crimes," whatever that means.

As calls for the release of Ai Weiwei mount, China risks reviving its reputation as a brutal police state. Showing contempt for Nobel laureates and dissident artists will not convince the world that it is a great power deserving of respect.

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