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China’s war against Nobel Peace Prize

December 17, 2010

Herald Scotland
12 Dec 2010

Six-year-old Zeng Yuhan became an unwitting pawn in a final strange effort by China to undermine the Nobel Peace Prize and discredit the jailed dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the accolade in absentia on Friday night.

The shy little girl, was carried onto a stage at a Beijing hotel on Thursday to grasp a glass trophy representing the Confucius Peace Prize, a largely obscure award that organisers said was decided on December 5 by a small group of Chinese scholars. To add to the surreal nature of the event, the girl’s presence on stage was not even explained.

The prizewinner, veteran Taiwanese politician Lien Chan, was absent from the low-key ceremony. His staff said they had never heard of the prize.

The ceremony was a last, lame attempt to draw the spotlight away from the next day’s events in Oslo, when a different kind of empty chair took centre stage as actress Liv Ullmann read a “final statement” written by Liu before he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for subversion last Christmas.

China and 15 diplomatic allies boycotted the Nobel Peace Prize award.

    "I think we have to say... that in some ways China is still a very immature diplomatic player, very immature indeed,"

    Kerry Brown, British-China analyst

The list of Beijing’s supporters included Russia, Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Cuba. Most of the nations have vital economic ties to China and are less than well disposed to the Western view of global affairs.

The call to boycott the ceremony was “probably a happy event among those authoritarian regimes because the rich government of China now owes them for something they probably would have done without Chinese urgings”, said Edward Friedman, a specialist in Chinese politics at the University of Wisconsin.

China’s foreign ministry lobbied embassies in Norway not to attend the ceremony and issued statements about the “politicisation” of the prize and the Nobel Committee’s “interference in China’s internal affairs” by choosing a man who challenged the Communist Party to allow democratic reform.

Inside China, police have detained, placed under under house arrest or kept under surveillance many rights activists since the prize was announced on October 8, including Liu’s wife, Liu Xia.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said China had “won the understanding and support of more than 100 countries and major international organisations” for its position on the Nobel prize, but at least 80 of its claimed supporters remained unidentified.

Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela are all important oil and gas exporters to China. China has supported Iran and Sudan at the United Nations, while Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez has tried to build an alliance with China to counter US world influence.

On the day of the Nobel ceremony, Jiang said China supported Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organisation “as soon as possible”.

In an implicit dig at the nations siding with China, Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland said in his speech at Friday’s ceremony that the event was held “while others at this time are counting their money, focusing exclusively on their short-term national interests, or remaining indifferent”.

Kerry Brown, a British-China analyst and former diplomat in Beijing, said China’s image had “suffered badly” through its crude efforts to rally support and intimidate other nations.

“If [China’s critics] wanted to write a script for how to completely humiliate and show China in what they claim are its true colours, well, the Chinese government has responded magnificently,” said Brown, a senior fellow at the Chatham House think-tank and the author of Friends and enemies: The past, present and future of the Communist Party of China.

Salil Shetty, the secretary-general of Amnesty International, accused China of trying to “sabotage this year’s award with political pressure, arm-twisting and economic blackmail”.

The Philippines, Serbia and Ukraine apparently changed their minds after politicians and rights groups criticised reports that they planned to boycott the ceremony.

The division that was still on show in Oslo reflects loose regional and global alliances forming around China in opposition to US-led groupings.

Nepal’s government instructed its ambassador to Britain, Suresh Chandra Chalise, who also represents the nation in Norway, not to go to Oslo because of a request from China,

Sandwiched between the world’s two most populous nations, China and India, Nepal drew the condemnation of rights groups after it disrupted a ballot organised among the country’s 30,000 Tibetan exiles in October.

China’s growing influence has persuaded its poor Himalayan neighbour to be less sympathetic to Tibetan refugees. Nepal forcibly repatriated three Tibetans to China in June, prompting a rebuke in the US State Department’s annual report on religious freedom last month.

Friedman believes that China’s “bullying tactics” reflect the “imperatives of domestic politics in China”, adding: “This apparent need at the highest level of power in the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) regime not to compromise becomes very worrisome for those who hope for negotiated solutions to tensions in global hot-spots.”

No nation feels China’s diplomatic might more than Taiwan, which China regards as a breakaway province to be “reunified”, by force, as a last resort. Former Taiwanese vice-president Annette Lu once said her country faced a “diplomatic Berlin Wall” in building international relations.

Lien, the honorary chairman of Taiwan’s Kuomintang (KMT), or Nationalist Party, was recognised with the Confucius prize because he “built a bridge of peace between the mainland and Taiwan” by promoting links with the Chinese Communist Party.

The second-most sacred tenet of China’s diplomacy is its sovereignty over Tibet, a region that is largely closed to foreign observers and subject to tougher policing than the rest of China.

China was incensed when protestors disrupted the Paris torch relay for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, and by French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s meeting later that year with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist leader who fled to India after a failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959.

Yet China rarely maintains a principled stand indefinitely, preferring a pragmatic balancing of its economic and political interests. When Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Paris last month, activists accused Sarkozy of ignoring human rights to win deals worth billions of pounds, including one for 102 Airbus passenger planes.

Indian media said China issued at least four diplomatic notices urging New Delhi not to attend the Nobel ceremony. India ignored the requests despite the risk that it could sour next week’s scheduled visit to India by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

China provides Pakistan with military, nuclear power and infrastructure but it has also tried to improve its diplomatic ties with India over the past decade and the two nations have held talks on their longstanding border disputes.

Former Indian diplomat MK Bhadrakumar said India’s presence in Oslo was a “loud assertion that India is prepared to stand up and be counted” in any US effort to counteract China’s influence. “The Indian establishment is convinced that Moscow and Beijing are closely co-ordinating on the Asia-Pacific region and [that their] leitmotif is to keep US influence under check.”

Japan and South Korea, which both sent envoys to the Nobel ceremony, are key US allies in Asia, while China is close to Russia and remains one of North Korea’s few diplomatic friends.

These six nations form two sides in the stalled negotiations over North Korea’s nuclear programmes, although both China and Russia have voiced strong opposition to Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons. After North Korea’s shelling of a South Korean island last month, the United States, South Korea and Japan all reacted coldly to China’s call for an emergency meeting of the six delegation heads.

Japan and South Korea also back the United States in its long-term commitment to arm Taiwan and help defend the island against an attack by China.

Further tainting the image of Chinese diplomacy, one of the US embassy cables released this week by WikiLeaks quoted a South Korean official as saying the continuing responsibility of Chinese envoy Wu Dawei for the six-nation negotiations on North Korea was “a very bad thing”.

Another unidentified official quoted in the leaked cable, dated February 22 from the US embassy in Seoul, described Wu as a “hardline nationalist” and an “arrogant, Marx-spouting former Red Guard” who “knows nothing about North Korea, nothing about non-proliferation and is hard to communicate with because he doesn’t speak English”.

The Red Guards were young fanatics, manipulated by Communist Party factions, who were still spreading chaos when China and the US began the “ping-pong” diplomacy that culminated in a historic meeting between Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon in 1972.

Less than a decade after the Nixon-Mao summit, China introduced reforms that gradually moved it away from state planning and paved the way for 20 years of breakneck infrastructure creation and export-led growth.

Its once ideologically-based diplomacy has become largely pragmatic but its diplomats, most of whom are middle-aged Communist Party members, remain highly cautious even by the usually conservative standards of foreign affairs officials.

Since October, China has warned Norway that diplomatic relations will suffer. It has suspended discussions on a free-trade agreement with Norway, but it has continued talks on oil and gas co-operation.

But China appears to maintain a tougher stance with weak nations. “I think the consensus is that when China is dealing with African countries, or dealing with countries in the region (Asia), it can be pretty bullying,” Brown said.

In contrast to China’s approach, Iran sent its ambassador to the award ceremony in Oslo when Iranian rights lawyer Shrin Ebadi won the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize. The Iranian ambassador’s presence apparently helped to avoid the glare of publicity that Liu’s ceremony generated from Western governments and global media.

In a statement on Liu’s award ceremony, issued via Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, Ebadi said she was “sorry that my country, Iran, has decided not to take part in this universal tribute to a human rights activist ... I hope the Chinese government is going to understand that it was a mistake to jail him and to threaten countries to get them to stay away from the ceremony.”

Brown agreed that China’s jailing of Liu, who co-organised the Charter 08 for democratic reform, and its diplomatic response to him winning the Nobel prize had “backfired spectacularly”.

“I think we have to say, at the end of the day, that in some ways China is still a very immature diplomatic player, very immature indeed,” Brown said.
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