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Life After The Nobel: Will China Make Nations Pay? Will Liu Xiaobo Be Forgotten?

December 13, 2010

Forbes
Dec. 10 2010

By GADY EPSTEIN

We have learned one thing for sure in the two months since Liu Xiaobo was chosen for the Nobel Peace Prize: China’s leaders simply do not care that many nations view them as bullies for trying to pressure them into boycotting today’s ceremony in Oslo, Norway.

What will be the real-world results of this anti-Nobel campaign? Will the nations that declined to attend see an appreciable economic benefit from their piety to China? Will the rest of the nations that sent their dignitaries pay a price in, say, trade deals with Beijing? Will the cause of Liu Xiaobo fade with time, as the world gets back to business?
We have a precedent for answering the first two questions, because this bullying was just a higher-profile version of what Chinese diplomats do on a regular, day-to-day basis in the case of another Nobel Peace Prize winner Beijing hates: the Dalai Lama.

And believe it or not, as the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos pointed out, two German researchers have actually studied whether nations that choose to receive the Dalai Lama suffer economically in terms of trade with China after the fact. The answer, according to “Paying a Visit: The Dalai Lama Effect on International Trade”: Under President Hu Jintao, they have indeed taken a measurable hit, typically lasting for about two years.

Of course, in this case it will be hard for China to make all the attending nations pay, because they comprise many of China’s trading partners. It will be harder to isolate, say, France, than it was when Nicolas Sarkozy met with the Dalai Lama and incurred Beijing’s wrath (he seems to have worked hard to make up for that). This time, there is safety in numbers for many Western democracies.

As for the nations that acceded to Beijing’s wishes to boycott the ceremony, many of them are China’s longtime allies, or they have their own records of quelling dissent. You can see not going as an easy decision for Russia, which could well have its own Liu Xiaobo someday — and already had its own under the days of Soviet rule, days which former KGB man Vladimir Putin seems to remember fondly.

Don’t be surprised in the months ahead if Beijing sends wreaths of roses, in the form of investments or trade deals, to some of the countries that stood with it in boycotting the Nobel ceremony, including nominal democracies Afghanistan and Serbia.

What about the last question, though, the most important one? Will the cause of Liu Xiaobo move to the back burner as the business of the world moves on? That is surely what China wants, and it might seem that human nature would be on Beijing’s side.

Our collective attention span can absorb only so much about one issue. Diplomats can only spend so many of their bullets in each meeting bringing up Liu Xiaobo and other dissidents; and journalists can spill only so much ink before moving onto the many other China stories out there.

Until now, Beijing has managed to do its very best to keep the Liu Xiaobo story in the headlines — by cracking down on dissidents before the ceremony, by putting Liu’s wife Liu Xia under house arrest and refusing to allow her to travel to accept the award, by trying to bully other nations into not attending today, and by calling the Nobel panel members “clowns” who are perpetrating an “anti-China farce.” Kooky partisans heaped on the absurdity by awarding in parallel fashion yesterday a “Confucius Peace Prize.”

Tomorrow Liu Xiaobo will still be in jail, and China’s leaders seem determined to keep him there. Yet as long as he is imprisoned, the world will remember him, and his peace prize will remain “perhaps the most important” yet awarded, as Nobel chairman Thorbjoern Jagland put it yesterday. His eloquent writings will live on, despite his fears that they might not. They will live on somehow in the country that tries to obliterate them within its Great Firewall.

Liu Xiaobo will not be forgotten, in no small measure because China’s leaders will keep pressuring the world and their own citizens to forget him.
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