China's Nobel Fury Backlash

Beijing's aggressive blitz to discredit the Nobel Peace Prize and its recipient may boomerang, analysts say.
Parameswaran Ponnudurai
A portrait of Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo is projected on the wall of a hotel during a torch parade in Oslo, Dec. 10, 2010.

China may have shot itself in the foot by its radical clampdown at home and aggressive diplomacy abroad over the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to jailed pro-democracy dissident Liu Xiaobo.

By barring Liu and his wife from collecting the award, coming down hard on his supporters, and muzzling debate on the subject, Beijing's actions have unwittingly and ironically highlighted the human rights plight at home.

And by waging an unprecedented campaign to force other nations into boycotting the award ceremony in Oslo on Friday, China has earned the dubious honor of being an international bully.

"The government's sheer vitriol and bullying of other nations not to attend the Oslo award ceremony highlights a white-knuckled clinging to power," said Mark Lagon, an expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank in Washington.

Many see authoritarian China as the new global model for economic development, amid the economic troubles in the United States and other advanced industrial democracies, he said.

"Yet if the Chinese government were so sure that autocracy can be sustained, why the shrill response to humble Mr. Liu," Lagon asked.

Liu, jailed for 11 years after co-writing a blueprint calling for human rights and reform, was given the Nobel prize for his nonviolent struggles on behalf of democracy and human rights.

On several occasions before the award ceremony, Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, and the Norwegian foreign minister were specifically warned by top Chinese officials not to give the award to Liu, Jagland told the New York Times.

Jagland said it was important that other countries stand up to China, in all its might.

“The whole world is now benefiting from China’s economic growth, but we cannot only look to short-term commercial interests,” he said. “We need to uphold our own values.”

"Mask has slipped"

China may have displayed a smiling face to the world and promoted its economic prowess but with the Nobel affair, "the mask has slipped and Beijing has again revealed a forbidding, autocratic scowl," the British international business newspaper, Financial Times, said.

"Rather than behaving like a confident rising power, China’s ill-tempered actions have betrayed its own insecurity," it said.

Times Wang, a New York law student whose father is a veteran political dissident currently serving a life sentence in China, said behind the Chinese Communist Party's strategy to discredit Liu and the Nobel prize was what he called the "saddest irony."

Liu was the first Chinese person to win the Nobel while still a citizen—of all China's laureates, only he chose to live in China, Wang said.

"Yet instead of pride, the Party fills its people's hearts with hatred."

Wang's father, Wang Bingzhang, has been held in solitary confinement since 2002. Last month, as Beijing heightened its crackdown after Liu was named Nobel Peace Prize winner, Times Wang's aunt and sister were denied visas to visit his father.

"I hope to visit soon, but fear I will also be denied," Times Wang said.

Western plot

Beijing also resorted to crude name-calling, referring to the Nobel judges as "clowns" and describing the prize as a Western scheme to deter a rising China.

It also launched this week its own “Confucius Peace Prize” but the winner, Taiwanese former vice-president Lien Chan, failed to turn up and his office denied knowledge of the award.

Rights groups said China's strong arm tactics and spiteful response to Liu's award underscored its overt hostility to human rights norms, both at home and abroad.

"The ham-fisted response to the Nobel crisis has dramatically undermined Beijing's post-Tiananmen efforts to rehabilitate its image," said Nicholas Bequelin, a senior researcher in Human Rights Watch's Asia division.

"Language unbecoming of a world power used to characterize the Nobel Committee members has only made Beijing's predicament worse," he said.

Bequelin said keeping a Nobel laureate in prison also has both immediate and long-term implications for China's diplomacy.

"It becomes harder for China's interlocutors to sweep aside human rights in bilateral or multilateral relations (and) the situation may well create a host of awkward interactions when Chinese leaders travel abroad."

"Cold War mentality"

Some however see the Nobel award as a trigger for greater rivalry between the West and China.

The Nobel committee's decision is "a distortion of China's reality, an irresponsible misrepresentation of the most significant story of our time: the Chinese renaissance," said David Gosset, director of the Euro-China Centre for International and Business Relations at China-Europe International Business School, Shanghai & Beijing.

"By awarding the prize to Liu as it did in the past to (German pacifist) Carl von Ossietzky or (South African politician) Albert Lutuli, the committee implicitly associates post-Maoist China with the Nazi era or South African apartheid," he said. "Such a fallacy discredits the venerable Norwegian institution."

The committee also overlooked the constraints of China's economic development by assuming that a developing country of 1.3 billion people with a GDP per capita of U.S. $3,700 can adopt en bloc the socio-political standards of the developed world without hindering its material progress, Gosset said.

He charged that the decision could be interpreted as "politicized" and anti-China and "to a certain extent, it does regrettably reignite an unnecessary ideological confrontation."

Beijing said the award choice was "political theatre" and a product of a "Cold War mentality".

"Honoring someone the government dislikes may serve to embarrass China in this year's case, but that is almost all," the China Daily, an English-language government mouthpiece said in an editorial on Saturday.

"Quite a few Westerners cherish the naive hope that the prize will 'enlighten the Chinese on human rights' and instigate the changes they wish to see in the country," the editorial said.

"They have been too preoccupied with their own fantasies to realise what is happening in the real world," it added.

Civil rights

The Nobel committee's choice should not be interpreted as an insult to China, Jagland argued.

Rather, he said, its reasoning should be seen as similar to that of 1964, when the prize went to Martin Luther King, who was defying the authorities to fight for civil rights in America.

The prize helped nudge the United States to change, Jagland said, and he hoped that it would have the same effect on China.
Liu himself offered similar hopes in his final court statement before he was thrown in jail on Christmas eve last year.

"I firmly believe that China’s political progress will not stop, and I, filled with optimism, look forward to the advent of a future free China.

"For there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme...."


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Dec 12, 2010 11:23 PM

This is just a beginning. World will soon see the real color of China.