Nobel news nothing for Beijing to cry about

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 October, 2010, 12:00am

Whenever it comes to bad news, the mainland leadership's instant reflexes are to suppress it - even though that has been proven futile time and again in this age of the internet and mobile phones. That is exactly what Beijing attempted to do following the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo, announced on Friday afternoon.

On top of muzzling the official media, the authorities were also busy blocking the satellite signals of CNN and the BBC, censoring the news and erasing postings from the internet and blogs, harassing activists and preventing them from having a celebration dinner, and stopping Liu Xia , Liu's wife, from meeting reporters.

However, the efforts to quash this news appear to be less severe than before, suggesting that some officials may have finally realised the futility of the exercise. Over the weekend, access to stories about Liu's award on major international news websites, including The New York Times and many of the Chinese-language portals in Hong Kong, has been unrestricted.

As expected, the central government built up an initially angry response, with the Foreign Ministry spokesman denouncing Liu's selection as having 'desecrated' the prize. The Global Times, a hawkish tabloid owned by the People's Daily, attacked the award as part of the Western attempt to divide China and said the Nobel Peace Prize was becoming a political tool of Western interests.

It goes without saying that the prize has created a huge embarrassment for Chinese leaders at a time when the mainland is building up its international influence because of rising economic power.

Yet let's face it: mainland leaders have brought this on themselves. Liu, widely considered moderate in his thinking, was last year given an unusually harsh, 11-year jail sentence for subversion. His 'major' crime was merely that he was a leading sponsor of a group that penned a document called Charter 08, which called for true freedom of expression, human rights and free elections - most of which are guaranteed in the Chinese constitution anyway.

The Global Times does have a point in saying that the prize is political, at least in its timing. The first time the award was given to a Chinese - Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama - was in 1989, after the mainland's bloody crackdown on student protests in June caused an international uproar. This time, Liu was honoured at a time when the mainland is tightening controls over political dissent in the name of maintaining social stability.

The honour for Liu, for 'his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental rights in China' as the citation said, should also be seen as a collective international warning to China. Nobel Peace Prize Committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland probably reflected a majority view in the international community by saying China should expect greater scrutiny as it becomes more powerful.

As a result, analysts have said they feared the authorities would react to the award by cracking down harder on political dissidents and rights activists. Some officials might use the award to stir nationalism by accusing Western countries of imposing values on China.

Let's hope this doesn't happen. Some mainland leaders are pushing the view that freedom of speech and multiparty elections are not suitable for China. By doing so, they have chosen to ignore a very important piece of the Communist Party's own history.

In 1945, the party undertook negotiations with the then ruling Kuomintang over power sharing, brokered by the US. The communists strongly advocated freedom of speech, multiparty elections and other constitutional rights, but Chiang Kai-shek, the then KMT leader, rejected them, which led to the collapse of talks and to the civil war. The Communist Party's espousal of those values to end the KMT's one-party rule was an important factor in rallying support among the people.

The time has come for the party to push for greater political rights again. Mainland liberals argue that tackling rampant corruption and rising inequality requires substantive political reforms. Over the past two months, Premier Wen Jiabao has publicly expressed support for political restructuring, suggesting that he tried to kick off debates on the issue.

In this context, the mainland leadership should treat the award as good news, and use it to stimulate further debates on political reforms. One immediate opportunity is to add political restructuring to the agenda of the annual plenum of the party's Central Committee, which is scheduled to begin on Friday.