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Seditious silence: Chairman of the Nobel Committee, Thorbjorn Jagland sits by a chair left vacated in protest at Liu Xiaobo's detention (Heiko Junge/AP) 

How has China survived after the collapse of almost all other Communist regimes? A London-based professor explained why at a recent meeting on Chinese human rights. The Chinese, he said, are governed by a genuinely democratic regime that satisfies their real needs. Most of them don't care about what Westerners think are human rights — free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly — because they have the real thing: housing, free education and medicine.

As it happens, none of these is free in China, and medical expenses are second only to official corruption when Chinese are asked about the country's major social problems. The professor also stated that most Chinese have never heard of Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who was jailed for 11 years last year, convicted of sedition at what the professor insisted was a fair trial. He waved away my explanation that Liu is unknown in China because no newspaper there has reported his prize or conviction.

I was nearly overcome with déjà vu. The look on the professor's face-grim determination and immunity to counter-argument — and his repetition of his arguments supplemented by attacks on the United States, which he contended is behind the unfair attacks on China and anyway neglects the human rights of its own citizens. The expression and dogma were what I had witnessed and sat through in Beijing during many foreign ministry press conferences for foreign journalists: the hallmarks were word for word reiterations of official positions, denial of any Chinese wrongdoing, and a counter-attack on all criticisms of China as intrusions into its sovereignty and thus "hurting the feelings of the Chinese people".

What the professor said might be dismissed as a regurgitation of views now rarely heard (and odd, as well, from an academic who has written a book on a Chinese subject) but it is often claimed these days that not only is the Chinese economy a global sensation (although still paltry per capita) but also that the times of political persecution are over.

Unfortunately for the people of China, the persecution of enemies of the state continues, perhaps somewhat accelerated by the "jasmine revolution" pro-democracy demonstrations earlier this year. (The word jasmine is now banned from the internet.) A recent invaluable book, Mao's Invisible Hand, argues that the deadly influence of Mao Zedong's early revolutionary convictions continues to inspire and animate his successors today, even as they reform China's economy in ways the Chairman would have despised and bring it into the international system.Another new book from Harvard University Press, The People's Republic of China at 60, edited by William C. Kirby, makes this plain. For Mao, who died in 1976, and his successors there were and are ever-changing hopes, illusions and plans, ranging from agricultural communes in which all families ate together, or students were encouraged to beat and even kill their teachers, to encouraging foreign investment and manufacturing foreign cars. In the commitment to experiment, local bodies try and try again, observed by the centre, which adopts some of the new ideas. Or, equally possibly, snuffs them out. In the Thirties, for example, Mao was impressed by a party member, Deng Zihui, who consulted local people about what sort of agricultural reform they wanted. Yet in 1955 Mao condemned Deng's policies as "Rightist opportunism".

In short, behind any experiment or policy U-turn lies the guarantee of brutal state retaliation against "class enemies", "Rightist opportunists", "counter-revolutionaries" and "seditionists". In the last two years alone, Liu Xiaobo has been locked up for 11 years for his leading role in composing Charter 08, a document signed by more than 8,000 Chinese at home and abroad calling for democratic rights and making no threat to the regime; Norway was threatened with economic retaliation for awarding Liu the prize (the professor said awarding the prize to Liu was anti-Chinese) and not a few ambassadors to Oslo stayed away from the award ceremony after similar threats; many signatories of Charter 08 were placed under preventive detention and Liu's wife is incommunicado in their flat. The artist Ai Weiwei disappeared for months and has now been forced to plead guilty to tax evasion. Zhao Lianhai was sentenced to two and a half years in prison for "provoking disorder", attempting to organise parents of thousands of children who died or became ill from drinking powdered milk containing the industrial chemical melamine. Hundred of petitioners complaining about forced eviction from their houses, flats and fields to make way for commercial enterprises have vanished into local "black jails", where they may be beaten or tortured; these jails are officially denied and when a newspaper, Liaowang, reported their use it was denounced for spreading false information.

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