Join our Mailing List

"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Nobel Committee faces down the dragon

October 8, 2010

By Sreeram Chaulia
Asia Times
October 6, 2010

With the Norwegian Nobel Committee scheduled to
announce the name of this year's Peace Prize
winner on October 8, speculation that jailed
Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiaobo is the frontrunner is mounting.

News agencies including Reuters and Agence
France-Presse have reported that Liu, who is
serving an 11-year prison sentence in Liaoning
province for "inciting subversion of state
power," is the bookmakers' favorite among 237
nominees to bag the most political of Nobel prizes.

The prognosis has clearly not gone down well in
Zhongnanhai, the power center in Beijing, where
there is concern about China-bashing and sullying
that could jeopardize the country's mounting international influence.

The director of the Nobel Institute, Geir
Lundestad, revealed last week that Chinese Deputy
Foreign Minister Fu Jing had met him in Oslo in
June to deliver a warning that the "unfriendly
gesture" of honoring Liu with the prize "would
have negative consequences" for bilateral relations between China and Norway.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed that
pressure was being exerted on the Nobel Committee
on the grounds that Liu had never promoted "peace
between peoples, international friendship and
disarmament." According to a ministry
spokeswoman, awarding Liu would be contrary to
the ideals of the prize's founder, Alfred Nobel.

Although China has a long track record of
rebuffing and categorically dismissing
international calls for domestic political
reform, its climb up the ladder of world-power
standings has somewhat increased its sensitivity
to foreign criticism of its authoritarian regime.

Chinese strategic elites have strived over the
past decade to devise image-burnishing doctrines
like "peaceful rise" (Zhongguo heping jueqi),
"peaceful development" (Zhongguo heping fazhan)
and "harmonious society" (hexie shehui) to
counter portrayals of Asia's behemoth as
aggressive abroad and bulldozing in its high-modernization drive at home.

Beijing is aware that its growing clout in the
international system must be accompanied by
improved stature, which is a more amorphous term
predicated on accumulated goodwill, soft power and positive feelings.

Dominique Moisi's theory that emotions like fear,
hope, humiliation and admiration are as important
in international politics as material factors
like economic and military calculations explains
China's recent attempts to assuage, convince or
even coerce the rest of the world to accept its
bona fides as a normal state with a humane
polity. China's "charm offensive" (Joshua
Kurlantzick) is thus a necessary weapon in its ascent as a great power.

Should Liu be named as the peace laureate,
Beijing will deem it a public-relations setback
because the aftermath of the prize helps train
worldwide attention on the cause espoused by the winner.

Older-generation leaders in the Chinese Communist
Party still remember the contretemps that
followed the Nobel Committee's selection of the
exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama
for the Peace Prize in 1989. The combination of
the Tiananmen Square crackdown and the conferral
of the Nobel on the Dalai Lama increased China’s
isolation to its highest level since the Mao
Zedong era and deterred foreign direct investment
and economic growth in the early 1990s.

Liu could be elevated into international
celebrity by virtue of the prize, shining renewed
light on China's dark spots, including political
prisoners. Although the Barack Obama
administration of the United States has thus far
dealt with China on pragmatic rather than
ideological terms, the democratization drumbeat
will become deafening, at least for a while, if
Liu wins the prize. Washington then might
resurrect the old concern about human-rights violations.

What appears to particularly gall Beijing is that
the Nobel Committee might pick Liu as the 91st
Peace Prize winner at a time when China is
unarguably the second-most powerful state in the
world. Lundestad's recent contention - that
Chinese pressure did not prevent the Nobel
Committee from feting the Dalai Lama in 1989 and
will not do so in 2010 either - seems to mock
Beijing's belief that it can translate 20 years
of economic growth and muscle power into having its way on delicate issues.

Compared to 1989, today's China does enjoy a much
bigger arsenal of pressure points and leverage
instruments to deter a range of international
actors from doing what they would otherwise do
for the sake of principle. Beijing enjoyed
limited success in 2009 by sending strong signals
to the Obama administration not to entertain the
Dalai Lama in the White House. When Obama
belatedly did meet the Tibetan spiritual leader
in February 2010, it was an in camera event with
no public photographs, in clear deference to Chinese sentiments.

Similar Chinese warnings fell on deaf ears in
France, where President Nicolas Sarkozy openly
shrugged off Beijing's anger and met the Dalai
Lama in Poland in December 2008. In retaliation
for this "unwise move," China threatened to
disrupt trade ties with the entire European Union
and canceled a planned EU-China summit.

China has also capitalized on its economic and
strategic ties with a wide range of countries to
win diplomatic concessions on sovereignty
disputes that it considers to be its "core national interests."

One of the standard conditionalities for Chinese
loans, trade and foreign-investment largesse in
Africa and Latin America has been withdrawing
recognition of Taiwan and acceptance of Tibet as
an integral part of China. The "one-China
principle" is a standard feature in mainland
China's checkbook diplomacy and has worked to the
disadvantage of Taipei, which finds its
international repository of state backers shrinking with each passing year.

Without question, China now has the wealth to
throw around and buy silence or acquiescence from
many world capitals that find themselves in hock
to the world's biggest market and a major foreign
investor. But the Nobel Committee is a different
matter altogether and has matured to define
"peace" much more liberally than the traditional
"inter-state peace" that Beijing claims to stand for.

The mainstreaming of the international
human-rights and environmental consciousness has
frequently pushed the committee to award the
Peace Prize to domestic activists for political
freedom and green justice who struggle against
autocratic rulers, notably Aung San Suu Kyi of
Myanmar, Shirin Ebadi of Iran, and Wangari Maathai of Kenya.

Some observers have predicted that the Nobel
elders in Oslo will avoid "risky" choices after
last year's controversial verdict to anoint
Obama. Liu's exemplary record of sticking to
non-violent means and his martyr-like halo of
sacrificing personal freedom for the sake of
collective rights for the Chinese people actually make him a safe bet.

Come Friday, should the committee plump for a
candidate like Sima Samar - head of the Afghan
Independent Human Rights Commission - instead of
odds makers' favorite Liu, China will uncork the
champagne for possibly pulling off another diplomatic coup.

But China is not quite the British Empire of the
1940s, which might have had a hand in denying
Mahatma Gandhi the Peace Prize despite his
nomination on five occasions. More crucially, the
guiding philosophy of the Nobel Committee has
globalized and transformed radically since the
dark days of the "White Man's Burden." China's
vulnerability to Nobel Peace Prizes cannot be wished away.

* Sreeram Chaulia is Vice Dean of the Jindal
School of International Affairs (JSIA) at the OP
Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank