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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Beijing should let sleeping Nobel dogs lie

October 18, 2010

Francesco Sisci
Asia Times
October 14, 2010

BEIJING - What is the value, the weight, and the
pain of a Nobel Prize for the Chinese government?
A few days after the announcement of the Oslo
prize and the self-celebrating rivers of ink shed
abroad for wounding the pride of the emerging
power, the pain and the damage of the Nobel within China seems negligible.

People in the streets know little about the Nobel
and much less of Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned
Chinese dissident who was awarded the Peace
Prize. Internet users who are accustomed to
jumping the Great Firewall dividing the Chinese
network from the rest of the world know better,
but do not get too excited in one direction (in
favor of Liu) or the other (against the prize-awarding Oslo academy).

These are trivial facts and have to be partly
discounted because of the official control over the media. Still, this Nobel
Prize is very different from its predecessors.

Andrei Sakharov, who won the Peace Prize in 1975,
was a huge person in the Soviet Union. He was the
father of the Soviet atomic bomb, the ultimate
weapon, with which Moscow threatened the West at
the height of the Cold War. The award to the
great physicist was a message to the West: "Among
nuclear scientists, there are also people who
think like us." And it was a message to those
inside the Soviet empire who respected the
physicist: "We support those who think like us and join Sakharov."

In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, who won in 1991,
was (and is) an even bigger person. She was the
leader of the party that in 1990 had won
elections, although she was at the time under
house arrest and was kept so for most of the next
20 years. The Cold War had ended and Myanmar was
a small country. The prize was a strong
solidarity message to the Burmese people who had
been deprived of victory at the polls, and a cry
for democracy in that country and throughout Asia.

Similar things apply for the Peace Prize to the
Dalai Lama in 1989. He is the leader of Tibet in
exile, recognized and adored by most Tibetans.
The Nobel was a message to China, and it
identified, rightly in the question of Tibet, a
fracture point for the country. At the time,
Moscow was embracing the West, the Chinese
economy was less than one-quarter of the Italian
one, and Beijing, after the Tiananmen crackdown,
seemed marginal in the global market.

In all those cases, the Nobel Prize went to great
people who had or have a great influence in their
communities, giving them an international platform.

In this case, however, Liu doesn't have the same
standing in today's China. The stature he gained
in these hours is mostly a "foreign loan" and
therefore likely to crumble and fall for those
inside and outside who cheered for his Nobel.

If the 1998 prize had been given to Li Hongzhi,
the Falungong leader who was living in China and
then had perhaps 100 million followers, it would
have been a major blow for the government. If
after the Tiananmen incident in 1989, the prize
had been awarded to the now exiled-in-America
dissident Wei Jingsheng, the situation might have
been even worse, because Chinese intellectuals
were then furious at the government.

But now Liu has a fraction of the support Li had
in 1998, nor does he have the influence that Wei
had among intellectuals in 1989. The prize is
very annoying to Beijing and gets the support of
some people abroad who oppose the government, but
it does not create a crack in the country between
the people and government, as was the case for other similar Nobel Prizes.

In fact, it is creating rifts among dissidents,
as more than one - starting with Wei - raised their voices in protest
against Oslo's choice. The fact that the judges
could perhaps not spot a better candidate in
China for the Nobel Prize than the not immensely
popular Liu Xiaobo could be revealing of the state of dissent in China.

So there is a profound discrepancy in perception
inside and outside of China on this issue. It is
not the first time this has happened, nor will it be the last.

In the end, perhaps the negative publicity that
China will receive abroad and inside the country
will depend only on the anger of the government,
should it decide to vent in response to the prize.

This does not mean that Oslo academics were wrong
when they called on China to be better than this,
and said that a major emerging power cannot keep
its dissidents in prison. But it does mean that
this award is likely to solve little, and it may
have the opposite effect to what was hoped for.

It could be useless or even harmful. The Chinese
government rules some 22% of the world's
population. The country's gross domestic product
has been growing at 10% per year for the past 30
years. China holds the largest currency reserves,
has contributed in the past two years to around
half of global growth, and thrives while much of
the rest of the world is still mired in crisis.

Now, a world without China would possibly be
split in a worse fashion than at the time of Sakharov and the Cold War
against the Soviet Union. But today there is no
Cold War - at least nobody has announced it -
unless someone is dreaming of it. These dreamers
could be many outside of China - and also within it.

"Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl, the other
candidate for the Nobel Prize for Peace, the one
who was rejected by the Oslo academy, reunified
Germany after half a century of separation during
the Cold War, began the process of economic and
political integration of the European Union, and
brought the German people to a peaceful standing
in the world, leaving behind the bloody legacy of
two world wars. What did Liu Xiaobo do? Twenty
years ago during the Tiananmen movement he was a
prominent personality, but today he is isolated."
So argue Chinese intellectuals close to the Communist Party.

Some of them had known Liu Xiaobo 20 years ago in
Tiananmen Square, yet now they fear Western
anti-Chinese plots more than the communists in
power. Even then, at the time of the student
movement, they add, Liu was not the most famous
leader or the one with the largest following. But
he remained in China and did not want to go abroad.

Many common people shrug off human-rights issues
and care only about how to set aside money to buy
a first or second home and a first or second car.
So why didn't the Norwegians choose a Chinese
person for their prize before or after the Nobel
to Sakharov? A victim of the horrors of the
Cultural Revolution would have been a suitable candidate.

The many nationalist hawks in the party are sure
of it: the award came now because there is an
ongoing conspiracy against Beijing. China is
guilty in the eyes of the West of having emerged
too quickly with its economy while the West is
mired in an ongoing economic crisis, and of being too independent of the West.

In fact, with the Nobel given to Liu Xiaobo,
China in 2010 is put in the same category as
Myanmar in 1991, the Soviet Union in 1975 and
Nazi Germany in 1935, when it shut Carl von
Ossietzky in a concentration camp. These
precedents seem inconsistent with the present
image of Beijing, dotted with bars, neon lights,
restaurants, clubs, discos, and boys and girls
chasing relaxation and fun in the night.

This Nobel Prize seems to the end the truce that
began with the attack on the twin towers in New
York on September 11, 2001. Then the West turned
its attention from China to focusing on the
Islamic threat, which was very powerful and real
because of the thousands of deaths inflicted in the moral capital of America.

Today, however, the Islamic threat appears reined
in, under control, and in some ways not so
serious. The war in Iraq was declared finished,
and the seemingly infinite - and perhaps
impossible to finish - Afghan war was put on the media
backburner. They are local problems and big
headaches, but a bunch of exalted extremists will not change the world balance.

Instead, over the summer, the news that the
Chinese gross domestic product had actually
leapfrogged Japan's set different priorities. As
China had surpassed Japan, tomorrow it could
surpass the United States. This pushed China and
its many unresolved problems into the spotlight.
There is the human-rights record, but also the
problems of cooperation on the environment in
Copenhagen last December and the Chinese silence
after Pyongyang's apparent sinking of a South
Korean corvette in March. After all, the West had
already proven the efficacy of awarding a Nobel
Peace Prize to criticize Beijing by awarding it to the Dalai Lama in 1989.

The thesis may be outlandish, but beyond the
conspiratorial fantasies of the many Chinese
nationalists, certainly the current difficulties
and foreign embarrassment for China have doubled
because of the threats Beijing recently shot at
Oslo. China had thundered against Liu's
nomination and announced trade retaliation
against Norway in the event of a prize to the
dissident. Beijing now has been proven weak
abroad twice because it yelled at Oslo and the screams were ignored.

This weakness could spill gasoline on the
nationalist fire, and Beijing could stiffen to
try to compensate for the setback. Or it could
lead to a deep rethinking about its politics.
Beijing could see that in any case, screaming is
counterproductive. If someone obeys the screams,
he is in most cases not convinced but only
intimidated, something that primes dissent and
darkens one's image. If people do not listen, it simply reveals weakness.

The Taiwan case proves the point. The island was
drifting away when Beijing blasted military
threats; when Beijing softened its tone, the island inched over.

If this was the goal of the Oslo academics, then
yes, they will probably achieve it. The prize to Liu was a profound shock

to China. China's newly acquired wealth and power
could easily be muddied, even by a bunch of old
fogies from a city at the end of the world, This
problem abroad could then spin within China, and
thus set a new pattern for the "efficacy" of the
Nobel Peace Prize, from the outside to the inside
- unless there is rethinking in Beijing.

Francesco Sisci is the Asia Editor of La Stampa.
His e-mail is fsisci@gmail.com
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