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When did basic human values become un-Chinese?

The morning before the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded, the Communist Party-controlled media released a statement denouncing the man who would have been in Oslo to receive it, if he were not banned from attending the ceremony. "This man," the statement said, "is a self-important nonentity whose scribblings and pronouncements on political matters show nothing but a wish to please his masters in the West."

That, in fact, was Moscow Radio describing democracy activist Andrei Sakharov before the ceremony in 1975. The words, though, are almost identical to the press briefing given on Thursday by the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee in order to denounce pro-democracy reformer Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned recipient of this year's prize. And I've read similar phrases half a dozen times this month on the front page of the state-controlled People's Daily.

The words are the same, and so is the core thought behind them: that ideas of public criticism of government, bottom-up reform and popular sovereignty - all of which are advocated, in the most mild and gradual form, by Mr. Liu - are alien imports from the West that have no root in Chinese culture. This is all untrue, of course.

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I'm not pointing this out because I believe today's China is anything like the Soviet Union. Quite the contrary: China is a far more open, flexible society, with a government genuinely concerned with the progress of its people and development of its economy rather than simply the state's own survival.

Also, China is not a monolithic state, with all power flowing from the top and a single manner of thinking imposed on all officials. There's a startling and diverse range of thought and heated debate emerging from China's many competing government, bureaucratic, military and academic bodies these days, including the tolerance of outspoken and angry criticism of government programs and plans.

This makes the "Western values" mythology all the worse. China has the right to choose its own course of development without outside interference. But something dangerous is happening, something far too similar to darker moments in world history, when basic human values are declared un-Chinese in order to bracket them out of discussion.

So, in the People's Daily, political science professor Song Yubo dismisses Mr. Liu's ideas as alien to Chinese thought. "Western countries," he writes, "have realized that it is not practical to hard-sell their values to the Chinese government, so they have started making trouble through other means. Awarding Liu the Nobel Peace Prize not only devalues Nobel but also undermines China's system of justice." He concludes: "By upholding the banner of human rights, what the Western world advocates as democracy cannot be adapted to the actual conditions of each and every country."

The idea that representative democracy is incompatible with Chinese society or thought is fiction, of course, but let's not pretend it was invented in Beijing. After all, we've just spent the past decade watching American, European and Canadian officials talk about the world's conflicts in terms of "Western values" and a "clash of civilizations," as if the world is divided into two isolated traditions of thought. We have lost in Iraq and Afghanistan in good part because our military leaders believe this.

Most of the time, they're talking about concepts that were Arabic, Persian or even Chinese imports, or hybrids of all of these. The Athenians did not so much invent democracy as synthesize it from the mélange of practices they picked up from the South and the East, and the resurrection of "Western" values in the Dark Ages was largely an Arabic project.

What we call the Enlightenment, as Cambridge historian C.A. Bayly has made a career of reminding us, was not something cooked up in Paris and Edinburgh and exported, but rather a set of public-sphere and market ideas that sprang up almost simultaneously, from supportive traditions, in East Asia, Arabia and parts of Africa. Similarly, Chinese economic historian Roy Bin Wong has shown us that China has independent traditions of markets and public roles as robust and well-rooted as those in Europe.

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This is all well known in China. They ignore it there, and we ignore it here, only to create isolation. And that's the last thing we need right now.

An earlier online version of this story contained incorrect information about C.A. Bayly. This version has been corrected.

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