How China ensured a lasting legacy for Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo
Cary Huang wonders whether Liu Xiaobo would have gone from scholar to internationally recognised Nobel Prize winner, had Beijing not harshly sent the rights activist to prison for 11 years over a pro-democracy manifesto
No prize in the world is as well-known and well-respected as the Nobel Peace Prize. Thus, it would be a bad tactic for any government to treat a winner as an enemy, or worse, help make their enemy a winner.
I made such a bet immediately after news broke that a Chinese court had convicted and sentenced him on Christmas Day in 2009.
Was Liu the most prominent leader of the year in view of his contribution to the progress of peace in China or the world? Not necessarily. He was then unknown even to most Chinese. A literary critic, writer and professor, Liu was just an acclaimed academic scholar before his involvement in politics. He would not have received the world’s most prestigious award if Beijing had been more low-key in dealing with him.
But Liu had been in and out of jail since 1989, which showcased his dogged resilience and steadfast belief, as well as his consistency and persistence in fighting for what he believed in. He was first jailed for his role in supporting the pro-democracy movement in 1989, and imprisoned again in 1995 for campaigning for political reform. He was last arrested in 2008 and received a harsh 11-year sentence for co-authoring Charter 08, a pro-democracy manifesto calling on the Communist Party to uphold the commitments made in its own constitution.
Indeed, as we discussed Liu’s fate after he was released on medical parole, Professor David Shambaugh, a leading sinologist at George Washington University, said he preferred to place him in the tradition of intellectuals dating back to the May Fourth Movement of 1919. Shambaugh believed that Liu was among many Chinese intellectuals who were fighting for freedom of speech, assembly and association, with the belief that such qualities are closely related to national strength, advancement in the sciences, modernity and people’s happiness.
My speculation was later confirmed by Geir Lundestad, non-voting secretary to the five-member Norwegian Nobel Committee at the time, who said Beijing’s unusually tough sentence made Liu an obvious choice.
The Nobel Committee had a tradition of just awarding past achievements. But it made a major shift in recent decades by also highlighting a cause, movement or process it hoped could promote world peace. Just look at a long list of laureates – whether it is the 1975 prize to former Soviet nuclear scientist and dissident Andrei Sakharov, the 1983 prize to Polish independent trade union leader and later president, Lech Walesa, the 1991 honour for Myanmar’s opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, or the 1993 prize jointly to South Africa’s Nelson Mandela.
The Nobel judges had gradually come to believe they had to “address the China question” – as they saw that no communist country, neither Cuba nor Vietnam, was as significant as China. Then came the second question: who in China would deserve the honour? They found in Liu a godsend.
Watch: Video purports to show Liu Xiaobo in prison and receiving medical treatment
The Nobel Committee might have failed to use the award to secure Liu’s release, another consideration for granting it, but the prize may well have had a greater effect than people sometimes think, as evidenced by the intense worldwide attention focused on the health of Liu, as he battles late-stage liver cancer.
Liu’s fate will have a long-lasting impact on China’s future development, for he serves as a symbol of the country’s struggle for human rights, freedom and democracy, and he will become a source of inspiration for others to aim for such accomplishments.
Cary Huang is a senior writer at the Post