The bigger prize

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 October, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 October, 2010, 12:00am

For many years after market reform started in the early 1980s, the people and government of the People's Republic waited impatiently for their first Nobel Prize to glorify their scientific and literary advancements. But the Nobel they wanted never came, and the Nobel Prize that came is not wanted - at least, not by the government. Twenty-one years after the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced this month that Liu Xiaobo was this year's winner. Beijing officials reacted in a familiar and angry manner, denouncing the decision as a desecration of the Nobel spirit and putting human rights activists and China's cyberspace under even tighter surveillance.

There has been much talk about the political repercussions of the prize in China. Enthusiasts see it as a sharp rebuke from the international community that will shame Beijing into more co-operative attitudes and policies towards greater democracy and human rights. Critics argue that recalcitrant communist leaders will be provoked into more confrontational acts, thus jeopardising the very little hope that remains. A more urgent question is, however, what Liu, and Chinese democracy activists in general, should do with the prize and how they should respond to international sympathies and support. It is certain that neither Liu nor his wife will be able to accept the prize in Oslo, but he should nonetheless decline it voluntarily - all for the cause that earned him the honour and landed him in jail.

A remarkable man, Liu indisputably deserves the prize for his ceaseless struggle for nonviolent democratic reform over the past two decades. His winning of the prize adds pressure on Beijing to stop its human rights violations. While I believe the combination of domestic and international pressure will eventually result in more political openness and respect for basic human rights, the democratic future of the People's Republic resides in its people alone: they will have to want democracy, believe in democracy and act to advance democracy. Towards this goal, democracy advocates like Liu play an indispensable role by providing an impelling and practical vision of how a democratic polity will not impede, but advance, prosperity and stability in China. Critically, however, they must also demonstrate their patriotic bona fides, which naturally extend to some fundamental concerns about national sovereignty and territorial integrity with regard to Tibet and Taiwan.

In today's China, having foreign associations can create doubts about a person's devotion to his or her country - a fact I am acutely aware of after being asked many times by my friends and family to reaffirm my loyalties. Such suspicion stems from the nation's painful experience with Western and Japanese imperialism, which is frequently played up by the regime to shore up its legitimacy. True, the Communist Party itself relied heavily on Soviet assistance for decades, but their path to power is also stained with blood and violence. However, today's democracy advocates, having no other choice but to resort to persuasion and activism, cannot ignore the charge that they are more beholden to their international supporters than to their own people.

In this age of global connectedness, who is free of foreign influence? After all, the concepts of democracy and human rights themselves were originally Western. A strong case could be made that foreign thoughts can be adapted to the Chinese context and used for their own purposes. The notion of zhong ti xi yong (Chinese learning as the essence and Western learning for its usefulness) was popularised in the late 19th century, yet when it is promoted or sponsored by foreign organisations or governments, it takes on a different meaning and can have dangerous implications for those who advance it.

Liu has been accused by the government and even some pro-democracy intellectuals of championing wholesale Westernisation in 1988 and refusing to back down from it. His alleged support for the Iraq war under the George W. Bush administration sent out another wrong message that, if amplified and extrapolated, might weaken the cause of democracy in the eyes of ordinary Chinese people.

Exiled, jailed or under vigilant watch by the government, many Chinese activists are forced to look overseas for information, platforms, funds and other resources. This dilemma adds to the difficulties of performing a balancing act between short-term needs and a long-term perspective. Nonetheless, democracy advocates need to be able to assert their autonomy not only as a tactic but also as a principle. The urgency now is to unite and mobilise the vast Chinese communities in Hong Kong, Taiwan and abroad. After all, if the advocates cannot convince those people of the benefits of a great Chinese democracy, how can they assure their compatriots on the mainland, who are much less exposed to democracy's virtues?

There is a lesson here for foreign governments and international organisations as well. The road to China's democratisation promises to be tortuous and long, and their continued support is important in encouraging democracy-loving Chinese. But such support should be strictly limited to the moral and diplomatic levels, or take shape - through official channels - in specific programmes or projects aimed at enhancing good governance, rights protection, judicial reform, and so forth. The Norwegian Nobel Committee may have done the right thing in putting the awful state of human rights in China under an international spotlight, but ultimately the prize will best serve its purpose if left unclaimed.

Xiangfeng Yang is a doctoral candidate in political science and international relations at the University of Southern California