This Nobel prize was bold and right – but hits China’s most sensitive nerve
Posted by Author on October 13, 2010
Timothy Garton Ash Stanford, California, guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 13 October 2010 –
Norway’s Nobel peace prize committee has done the right thing in awarding this year’s prize to Liu Xiaobo. The furious reaction of the Chinese state shows just how complicated doing the right thing will become as we advance into an increasingly post-western world.
Liu Xiaobo is exactly the kind of person who deserves this prize, alongside Andrei Sakharov, Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. For more than 20 years, he has consistently advocated nonviolent change in China, always in the direction of more respect for human rights, the rule of law and democracy. He has paid for this peaceful advocacy with years of imprisonment and harassment. Unlike last year’s winner, Barack Obama, who got the prize just for what he had promised to do, Liu gets it for what he has actually done.
The Chinese government tried hard to prevent him getting it. They directly threatened the Nobel committee with negative consequences for Chinese-Norwegian relations . They have since described the award as an “obscenity”, forbidden any mention of it in the censored Chinese media, placed Liu’s wife under house arrest, detained other critical intellectuals, cancelled talks about Norwegian fishery exports to China – and are now doubtless debating, at the highest level, how to play it from here. Will they, for instance, allow his wife, the photographer Liu Xia, to travel to Oslo to receive the prize on behalf of her imprisoned husband?
Meanwhile, in the capitals of the west, many are quietly questioning whether this really was such a good decision. These questions are important and need to be addressed, but one hypocritical or self-deceiving argument must be demolished at once. This is the claim that it will not be good even for the dissidents if a leading dissident receives the Nobel prize. One used to hear a similar case made by western politicians who, for example, declined to meet Sakharov, Lech Walesa or Václav Havel. Commenting on an American elder statesman’s visit to Moscow, one Russian writer told me: “He says it would not be good for Sakharov if they met, but what he really means is that it would not be good for him if he met Sakharov.”
It is for the dissidents to decide what is good for the dissidents. All the evidence we have so far suggests that Chinese dissidents are thrilled with the award, even though it means, predictably enough, that they face another crackdown. It’s not as if the Chinese Communist party was treating them very gently before. Liu was sent to jail for 11 years last year despite all the “quiet diplomacy” of western and other politicians. By his wife’s account, he was deeply moved when he heard the news of his award in prison, and dedicated it to the “lost souls” of Tiananmen Square.
It is not for us to tell brave campaigners for human rights what is good for them. That is to treat them as authoritarian and totalitarian regimes treat their own people – namely, as children. “We know best what is good for you.”
At the moment Liu and his colleagues constitute a tiny minority of Chinese citizens. Most of their compatriots have accepted the deal proposed to them by the Communist party since the late 1970s, and more particularly since 1989: extraordinary economic freedom and very considerable social, cultural and even intellectual freedom, so long as you do not challenge the central political pillars of the party-state. In this sense Liu is not comparable with Mandela or Suu Kyi, leaders of oppressed mass movements.
One must acknowledge, as the Nobel committee does in its citation, that China’s unprecedented hybrid version of authoritarian capitalism has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, and is delivering for many of its citizens in many ways. Unlike Burma or apartheid South Africa, the Chinese state enjoys a great deal of support from its people. The test will come, of course, when economic growth slows down.
We simply cannot know how Liu’s compatriots will regard him in, say, 20 years’ time. It seems almost unthinkable that things will turn upside down, as they did in Czechoslovakia, so an isolated dissident like Václav Havel suddenly becomes the elected president. President Liu? Surely not. It is slightly more imaginable that Liu becomes a litmus test for the boldness of a reformist leader. As Mikhail Gorbachev’s telephone call to Nobel prizewinner Sakharov, lifting his sentence of banishment, marked a turning point in the history of the Soviet Union, could a phone call to Nobel prizewinner Liu from, say, the next or next but one Chinese leader, mark another stage in China’s political modernisation?
Tuesday’s publication of an open letter from former senior Communist party officials, demanding more freedom of expression, is an indication that the hopes of reformists inside the party and dissidents outside it are not necessarily miles apart. It is, however, entirely possible that Liu and his colleagues will remain a small minority, representing an authentic but never predominant tradition in modern Chinese history – the tradition of liberal, constitutionalist modernisation that they evoke at length in the Charter 08 manifesto which earned Liu both prison and prize.
The fearful, offended reaction of the Chinese party-state testifies to its own insecurity, and its still fundamentally Leninist inability to tolerate any genuinely autonomous sources of social and political authority – be they Liu and his tiny band, Falun Gong or the Dalai Lama. It also speaks of a deep and more widely shared sense of national humiliation at the hands of the west. How they would love to have the international recognition of a Nobel prize. But who are the three Chinese, or China-related, Nobel prizewinners? Gao Xingjian, a Chinese novelist who emigrated to France and holds French citizenship; the Dalai Lama; and now Liu Xiaobo. Slap, slap, slap.
The Nobel citation talks of “universal” human rights. Charter 08 talks of “universal values”. But Chinese leaders hear only “western” values, and the west’s post-imperial but still imperialist quest to impose them on China.
Over the next decade there are three approaches the old west can take in response: capitulation, Huntingtonism, or a real dialogue about universal values. Capitulation would mean bowing to Chinese blackmail, so that, for instance, western leaders would no longer receive the Dalai Lama. By Huntingtonism I mean the way Samuel Huntington envisaged us avoiding the “clash of civilisations”. This was to say, “all right, you do it your way over there and we’ll do it our way over here”. As China’s power grows, that is where we may end up. But it is definitely too soon to give up on the hope of reaching a deeper understanding of what are genuinely universal values, as opposed to merely western ones.
In this conversation we have to be prepared to listen, not merely to speak. We cannot act as if the west has found all the answers, for everyone, for ever – an assumption that looks more implausible by the minute. If, instead of closing up defensively like a hedgehog, China were prepared to engage confidently and even offensively in an argument about universal values, we should welcome that with open arms. The alternatives are more likely, but worse.
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This entry was posted on October 13, 2010 at 7:54 pm and is filed under China, Freedom of Speech, Human Rights, News, People, Politics, Social, Speech, World. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.
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