For China, 2009 was a good year. The Chinese economy still roared ahead in the midst of a worldwide recession. U.S. President Barack Obama visited China, more in the spirit of a supplicant to an imperial court than the leader of the world's greatest superpower. Even the Copenhagen summit on climate change ended just the way China wanted: failure in its attempt to commit China, or any other industrial country, to making significant cuts in carbon emissions, with the United States getting the blame.
The Chinese government, under the Communist Party, has every reason to feel confident. So why did a gentle former literature professor named Liu Xiaobo have to be sentenced to 11 years in prison, just because he publicly advocated freedom of expression and an end to one-party rule?
Mr. Liu was co-author in 2008 of a petition, "Charter 08," signed by thousands of Chinese, calling for basic rights to be respected. Mr. Liu is not a violent rebel. His opinions, in articles published on the Internet, are entirely peaceful. Yet he was jailed for "inciting subversion of state power."
The notion that Mr. Liu might be capable of subverting the immense power of the Communist Party of China is patently absurd. And yet the authorities clearly believe that they had to make an example of him, to prevent others from expressing similar views.
Why does a regime that appears to be so secure consider mere opinions, or even peaceful petitions, so dangerous? Perhaps because the regime does not feel as secure as it looks.
Without legitimacy, no government can rule with any sense of confidence. There are many ways to legitimize political arrangements. Liberal democracy is only a recent invention. Hereditary monarchy, often backed by divine authority, has worked in the past. And some modern autocrats, such as Robert Mugabe, have been bolstered by their credentials as national freedom fighters.
China has changed a great deal in the past century, but it has remained the same in one respect: It is still ruled by a religious concept of politics. Legitimacy is not based on the give and take, the necessary compromises, the wheeling and dealing that form the basis of an economic concept of politics such as that underpinning liberal democracy. Instead, the foundation of religious politics is a shared belief, imposed from above, in ideological orthodoxy.
In imperial China, this meant Confucian orthodoxy. The ideal of the Confucian state is "harmony." If all people conform to a particular set of beliefs, including moral codes of behaviour, conflicts will disappear. The ruled, in this ideal system, will naturally obey their rulers, just as sons obey their fathers.
After the various revolutions in the early decades of the 20th century, Confucianism was replaced by a Chinese version of communism. Marxism appealed to Chinese intellectuals, because it was bookish, introduced a modern moral orthodoxy and was based, like Confucianism, on a promise of perfect harmony. Ultimately, in the communist utopia, conflicts of interests would melt away. Chairman Mao's rule combined elements of the Chinese imperial system with communist totalitarianism.
This orthodoxy, however, was also destined to fade away. Few Chinese, even in the top ranks of the Communist Party, are convinced Marxists any more. This left an ideological vacuum, swiftly filled in the 1980s by greed, cynicism and corruption. Out of this crisis came the demonstrations all over China, collectively known as "Tiananmen." Liu Xiaobo was an active spokesman in 1989 for the student protests against official corruption and in favour of greater freedom.
Soon after the bloody crackdown on Tiananmen, a new orthodoxy replaced Chinese Marxism: Chinese nationalism. Only one-party rule would guarantee the continuing rise of China and put an end to centuries of national humiliation. The Communist Party represented China's destiny as a great power. To doubt this was not just mistaken but unpatriotic, even "anti-Chinese."
From this perspective, Liu Xiaobo's critical views were indeed subversive. They cast doubt on the official orthodoxy, and thus on the legitimacy of the state. To wonder, as many have, why the Chinese regime refused to negotiate with the students in 1989 - or to find some accommodation with its critics today - is to misunderstand the nature of religious politics. Negotiation, compromise and accommodation are the marks of economic politics, where every deal has its price. By contrast, those who rule according to a shared belief cannot afford to negotiate, for that would undermine the belief itself.
This is not to say that the economic concept of politics is utterly strange to the Chinese - or, for that matter, that the religious notion of politics is unknown in the democratic West. But the insistence on orthodoxy is still sufficiently strong in China to remain the default defence against political critics.
These things can change. Other Confucian societies, such as South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, now have thriving liberal democracies. There is no reason to believe that such a transition is impossible in China.
But external pressure is unlikely to bring it about. Many non-Chinese, including me, have signed a letter of protest against the jailing of Liu Xiaobo. One hopes that this will lend comfort to him and give a moral boost to Chinese who share his views. But it is unlikely to impress those who believe in the current orthodoxy of Chinese nationalism. Until China is released from the grip of religious politics, Mr. Liu's ideals are unlikely to take root. This does not bode well for China, or, indeed, for the rest of the world.
Ian Buruma is professor of human rights at Bard College. His latest book is the novel The China Lover.