Liu Xiaobo

China has only itself to blame for Nobel fiasco

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 December, 2010, 12:00am


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A long list of human-rights campaigners has won the Nobel Peace Prize since the criteria for the award were widened to include them more than 50 years ago. Until now only one has been physically prevented by his government from going to Oslo to accept it - the late Soviet nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov in 1975. Two others failed to show up under duress - Polish Solidarity workers' leader Lech Walesa stayed home in 1983 because he feared he would not be allowed back and Myanmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi did not go in 1991 because she was told she must agree not to return.

The Soviet and Polish communist regimes later collapsed. Walesa became his country's president. Under foreign pressure, the military junta that still rules Myanmar in flagrant violation of human rights recently freed Su Kyi from a life of house arrest.

Sadly China, which has succeeded where the others failed by greatly improving the lives of its people, will now be remembered as being responsible for the fourth 'no show' by a peace prize laureate. There were even echoes of the old Kremlin's labelling of Sakharov as a 'laboratory rat of the West' in Beijing's denunciation of the award to jailed human-rights activist Liu Xiaobo as an 'obscenity'.

According to China, Liu is a criminal and the award is a Western conspiracy to destabilise the country. Beijing exerted pressure on the Nobel committee to choose someone else. Having failed, it lobbied against the traditional award presentation. Despite threats to friendly relations with Norway, the Nobel institute is going ahead with tonight's ceremony. Most nations with diplomatic representation in Oslo are expected to ignore Beijing's entreaties to boycott it. A world in awe of China's progress and normally sensitive about political and trade relationships has largely turned a deaf ear to its appeals. What also sets Liu apart is that, unlike the three previous no-shows, his immediate family cannot accept the award on his behalf. China will not let his wife or two brothers go.

How could an event that usually evokes national pride have been allowed to become such an international embarrassment?

China feels it deserves credit in human-rights terms for raising hundreds of millions from poverty. It believes its critics are misguided and their ideas ahead of the times in the mainland. But the world is well aware that it will not be pressured into allowing more rights before a time of its own choosing. So this heavy-handed reaction is counterproductive to its image and the respect it wants as a peaceful superpower. Liu's award did pose a dilemma, but having made its point at the outset Beijing had little further to gain. Attempts to meddle in the process did nothing to dignify its stand.

Liu should not be in jail, let alone serving 11 years. He was convicted of inciting subversion over his co-authorship of Charter 08, which called on Beijing to respect human rights and the rule of law and introduce democratic reforms - ideals enshrined in China's constitution. Ironically, in singling him out for sacrifice from many other intellectuals who signed it, not to mention thousands who have put their name to it since, Beijing did no harm to the case for the honour he will get tonight. China has only itself to blame for the embarrassment at how this has played out. As a modern, confident and powerful nation it surely must be able to find room for dissent and debate no matter how convinced of the correctness of its position. As usual, the Nobel committee, being independent of government, will have the last word. Rightly, it recognises that respect for human rights is indispensable to lasting peace.