Beijing should let sleeping Nobel dogs lie

2010-10-14Asia Times

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. (2010-10-14 Asia Times)


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