Pulling the wrong strings
The Nobel committee confounds the world yet again with its choice for peacenik of the year, laments Gamal Nkrumah
Democratic pin-ups are hard to pinpoint in Asia these days. The once rock-solid faith in the so- called Washington Consensus is fast eroding. But as Chairman Mao Ze Dong noted in his Red Book, even the longest march starts with a single step.
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Visitors at the Nobel Peace Centre in Oslo look at a portrait of jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2010
The decision by the Norwegian-based Nobel Committee to give Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize for 2010 was not in the end as decisive a showdown as last year's Nobel Peace laureate United States President Barack Obama. The international intellectuals' grilling of Obama was dull, drawn-out, ruthless and relentless. Of course, Obama's detractors failed to land a killer blow, but Obama did not come out well either. His critics presented the world public opinion with a master-class in ethical hair-splitting and obfuscation.
This year's Nobel Peace laureate is a rather different kettle of fish. Liu Xiaobo, a little known former literature professor, is historically the first Chinese national to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. It is critically important in this context to note that several equally deserving Chinese dissidents -- from a Western point of view -- have signalled their opposition and disappointment to the bestowal of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo. Yes, several Chinese dissidents endorsed the Nobel Committee's decision, but others have signed a strongly worded letter protesting the Nobel Committee's judgement, expressing particular alarm at Liu Xiaobo's "open praise in the last 20 years for the Chinese Communist Party".
Critics include Lu Decheng, jailed for throwing paint-filled eggs at the iconic portrait of Chairman Mao in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. He now lives in exile in Canada. Chinese dissident Shang Guoting who spent 20 years in Chinese jails and is now exiled in Denmark was also highly critical of the Nobel Committee's decision. And, so was Bian Hexiang, the New York-based member of the central committee of the Chinese Social Democratic Party. The point is that these high-profile personalities are vocal opponents of the Chinese government and not sympathetic to the Communist cause. What they deplore is that Liu Xiaobo, although considered by the Chinese authorities to be a dangerous dissident, is actually pro-Communist.
Confusing? Perhaps, so. It is even stranger still to note that a high visibility campaign on Liu Xiaobo's behalf, publicly urging the Nobel Committee to award the prize to him was launched by Western human rights activists, academics, intellectuals, diplomats and government officials over the past two years. The question is why Liu Xiaobo.
The impression given is that the Nobel Committee does not get it. What is clear is that the Chinese political culture, both official and dissident, was ill prepared for the Nobel Peace Prize. About 20 protesters in Hong Kong drank champagne and ate Norwegian salmon outside the central Chinese government liaison office in the city. They chanted slogans demanding Liu Xiaobo's immediate release from prison.
President Obama joined the bandwagon. He, too, called for Liu Xiaobo's immediate release. He said that although China had made "dramatic progress in economic reform and improving the lives of its people" over the last three decades, "this award reminds us that political reform has not kept pace, and that basic human rights of every man, woman and child must be respected." Obama, obviously, is a man in search of a silver lining.
The mixed messages delivered by other Western leaders have been more subtle, but still unmistakable. Be that as it may, the authorities in Beijing have been far from pleased with the turn of events. The Chinese media has played down the significance of the event.
Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Peace Prize will not sweep the Chinese Communists off their throne in Beijing. The timing is not right for such a gambit. In China, the line between criminality and political activism is blurred.
China's economy is booming and the country's political and economic clout on the international stage is on the rise. This change in the international arena is not without impact. The power of the West is waning.
The West must take care not to turn the screws too hard on Beijing. China, after all, is a power to be reckoned with. Bestowing the Nobel Peace Prize on Myanmar's Aung Sang Suu Kyi in 1991 did nothing to retrieve the deplorable political situation in Burma. The generals are still in power in the Southeast Asian nation and the Burmese Nobel Peace laureate is still under house arrest.
Myanmar is economically of little consequence. China, on the other hand is fast emerging as Asia's and the world's economic powerhouse.
Competing claims of anti-authoritarian righteousness are rife among China's democracy activists and especially so among those who have fled the country for fear of their lives, safety and well-being. Exiled Chinese dissidents have little credibility in China itself. There is little they can do to change the system in the foreseeable future.
Could those in the West who feel obliged to support Chinese human rights activists and democracy reformists do more? The West has its own guile and its own folly to thank for its failure to come to the rescue of Liu Xiaobo and the fractured band of democracy dissidents in China.
Infighting and squabbling among China's dissidents is a serious impediment to the nurturing of a viable democratic movement in the country, a fact that the West has yet to grasp. The Chinese government is accused by Western powers of systematically stifling opposition. Yet nobody in China wonders why anti-establishment Americans have failed to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. "I appreciate the Nobel prize, but I didn't win it," mused Noam Chomsky tongue-in-cheek. Activists such as Chomsky are highly unlikely to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by the Norwegian Nobel Committee.
This year's Nobel Peace Laureate Liu Xiaobo dedicated his award to victims of Tiananmen Square, those he movingly designated as the "lost souls of June Fourth".
The 54-year-old political essayist, literary critic and democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo has devoted the last two decades to ending the Chinese Communist Party's unchallenged grip on power.
"Liu Xiaobo has always worked to advance the peaceful democratic transformation of Chinese society and to avoid the violence, rebellion and bloodshed of the past," Zhang Zuhua, former high-ranking official in the Chinese Communist Party declared upon learning that Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2010. Liu Xiaobo and Zhang Zuhua masterminded Charter 08.
The Dalai Lama, the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize laureate reprimanded the Chinese government for its "furious reaction" and lamented what he saw as Beijing's intransigence, noting that the "Chinese government doesn't appreciate different opinions at all."
What the Dalai Lama failed to see is that political inertia complicates the Chinese political scene. His receiving the Nobel Peace Prize did not spell the imminent break-up of China, and awarding the same prize to Liu Xiaobo will certainly not make Chinese politics any more unpredictable than before he became a Nobel laureate.
The lack of unity among exiled Chinese dissidents has been dispiriting for democracy activists in China and overseas. And, it may be a legacy of the Chinese Communist Party's political hegemony over the country's political establishment. The dynamics of Chinese politics are ill understood in the West. It is therefore both pompous and pretentious of Western powers to prop up democracy in China by handing out Nobel peace prizes to dissidents like Liu Xiaobo who was sentenced in 2009 for inciting subversion of state power.
"I don't believe the Nobel prize is so important that once we have one, China will be entirely changed," Yi Xu, linguistics professor in London who translated the anti-Liu letter into English, derisively declared. "Look, the Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize and China didn't change."
The next step towards democratisation in China and other Asian nations must be homegrown and not Oslo-oriented.