Beijing's Nobel fears may come true, sooner or later

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 October, 2010, 12:00am

Every year, about this time, China's leaders nervously await the announcement from Oslo of the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Last year, Chinese officials were apprehensive that the award might go to a Chinese political activist and were relieved when it went to US President Barack Obama.

In 2008, when there were reports that the Nobel committee was considering Hu Jia, an activist serving a prison term, China lobbied the committee heavily. The foreign ministry spokesman warned that the peace prize should be awarded to the 'right person' - that is, not a Chinese dissident. In the end, it went to former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari for his efforts to resolve international conflicts.

This year's announcement is scheduled to be made on Friday, and again China is warning the committee not to make the wrong choice. This year, a record 237 people have been nominated but China is interested in only one: Liu Xiaobo .

Liu, a literary critic, writer and political activist, was sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2008 for 'inciting subversion against the state'. He was nominated by former Czech president Vaclav Havel who, together with a group of like-minded individuals, had in 1977 signed a manifesto called Charter 77, which called on Czechoslovakia's communist party to respect human rights. Havel was elected president after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.

In 2008, Liu and several hundred intellectuals in China issued their own manifesto, which they called Charter 08, calling for political reform and an end to one-party rule.

If Liu were to win the prize, it would be a slap in the face for the Chinese Communist Party, which has engaged in gross repression to stay in power. Liu would be a worthy winner of the prize this year, just as Hu Jia would have been a distinguished recipient in 2008.

The fact that China continues to produce people willing to go to prison for their beliefs is a testament to the determination of the people.

China has been applying pressure, not just on the Nobel committee but also on the Norwegian government, which is negotiating a free-trade agreement with one of its most important trading partners outside Europe - China. In June, Vice-Foreign Minister Fu Ying asked to see Geir Lundestad, director of the Nobel Institute, at the Chinese embassy in Oslo. Lundestad later reported that she had warned him that awarding the peace prize to a Chinese dissident would be 'an unfriendly action that would have negative consequences for the relationship between Norway and China'.

And last week, the spokesman for the foreign ministry asserted that Liu was an unsuitable recipient of the award because he 'was sentenced to jail by Chinese judicial authorities for violating Chinese law, and I think his acts are in complete contradiction to the Nobel Peace Prize'.

If the committee should give the award to Liu, it would be setting a precedent of sorts. No one serving a prison term has received the award since Carl von Ossietzky, in 1935. He was a German pacifist convicted of high treason and espionage.

Similarly, the award has never been given to a Chinese dissident, though other political opponents of repressive regimes have received the prize.

The Nobel committee prides itself on its independence. In fact, Lundestad said in 2001: 'Sooner or later the Chinese question must be tackled.' So, even if Liu is not named the 2010 Nobel peace laureate, China's nightmare of seeing an imprisoned political dissident winning the award may well just have been deferred.

Of course, there is one thing China could do to prevent it from happening: stop jailing dissidents.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator.