This year Liu Xiaobo, the hitherto not very famous Chinese dissident, won the Nobel Peace Prize. Awarded in absentia to an empty chair, his friends and family forbidden from attending, and his wife under house arrest an hour after the announcement of the award. She was later banned from all communication with the outside world after trying to relay messages of gratitude and solidarity from her incarcerated husband.
As Gou Hongyang points out here, China has long regarded the Peace Prize as a political tool, and it’s hard to disagree with them after its award to the now wholly discredited IPCC, Al Gore and also Obama. The question is, whose political tool is it? What exactly is its function? Whom do the Nobel Committee represent?
Zhou Enlai, when asked about the impact of the 1789 French Revolution, quipped it was too early to tell. History is the result of the crossing and twining of myriad human lives. A certain amount of perspective must be necessary to be able to clearly and accurately declare that, without doubt, this certain person at this certain time helped make the world a better place. Just as it would have been farcical to award Neville Chamberlain the Prize in 1938, what function did it serve to award it to those, whose efforts and resultant fruits of their noble labour, if any, are far far from being realized?
What exactly was the motivation behind awarding this increasingly discredited prize to Liu Xiaobo, a man psychologically scarred by the effects of the Tiananmen Inicident (or massacre, depending on your viewpoint) who has spent his life in and out of prison campaigning for human rights, and democracy within China? Has he helped bring peace to China? Is he even realistic in his methods, and goals? Will the awarding of this prize help ensure global peace in the near future? I worry that the award of this prize to a political dissident may have weakened the bonds of peace that binds us together in our increasingly fractitious, multipolar and dangerous, world.
Liu Xiaobo campaigns for human rights within China. If you are yet to read it, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be found here. To my jaded eyes, it reads more like a wish list than a set of achievable goals; full of naivity, more like John Lennon’s Imagine than something grounded in the harsher realities of our unfortunately complex and fallen world. While it is true that you’ll get further by shooting for the moon than just lying in the gutter, actions need to be grounded in reality. No matter how noble his struggle is, the awarding of this prize only exaggerates mistrust between the newly boisterous China and old Europe.
The immediate upshot has been that China has denounced the Nobel Peace Prize as illegal and illegitimate, and has established its own, the Confucius Prize, in its stead. Although the ceremony was hastily arranged, the recipient unaware, and its establishment a clear signal of petulance, this should send shock waves through the Western establishment. Whilst the emotions and motivations may be similar to Zimbabwe declaring the British Pound to be junk, the difference is that China’s decisions, whether grounded in rationality or hysterical response, now matter. Western norms do not have the same force that they once did. The following, an announcement by an official at the Confucius Prize ceremony, illustrates the rage:
China is a symbol of peace, meanwhile it owns the absolute power to uphold peace. With over 1 billion people, it should have a greater voice on the issue of world peace. In essence, Norway is only a small country with scarce land area and population, but it must be in the minority in terms of other relatively large numbers concerning the conception of freedom and democracy. Hence, the selection of the “Nobel Peace Prize” should open [sic] to the people in the world instead of engaging in “minority” type of the [sic] so-called presumption. Because it is unable to stand on the highest point of the whole human being, but also difficult to represent the viewpoint of most people, which could be inevitably biased and fallacious.
There is another aspect, one that I have yet to see anyone else mention. One of the most fundamental concepts in Chinese culture is that of face. By awarding this prize to someone who has repeatedly denounced Chairman Mao, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiaobao, the august Nobel Committee have in effect spat in the faces of the Chinese leadership. Giving someone face means that you help hide your friend’s inadequacies because the relationship is important to you. As the Chinese response makes clear, following the exposure of its soft underbelly and the subsequent ridicule by the world’s media, Norway is evidently not China’s friend.
From a geopolitical viewpoint, Nobel Prizes are the most prominent example of Scandanavia’s, (and if the European Commission also influence nominees, the EU’s) interventionist soft power. One of the benefits of being isolationist, is that by not bothering others, others are less likely to bother you; but interventionist policies are more likely to provoke a response of some sort. Thorbjorn Jagland, in defending the this years decision, said that the award was aimed at ‘honouring people,’ who like Liu, have said that ‘further economic development in China must be combined with political reforms.’ In short, he is telling the Chinese leadership how they should rule China. An action that could be interpreted as incredibly arrogant and condescending. Perhaps in the future, those in charge of awarding this prize ought to take care not to disturb any cantankerous dragons asleep on their hoards.