Reflections On The Award of the Nobel Peace Prize To Liu Xiaobo


By Prashant Kumar Singh

The Nobel Committee has announced the 2010 Peace Nobel Prize for incarcerated Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” This has attracted scathing criticism from the Chinese government.

The Nobel Peace Prize is not the ultimate certificate for the world’s peace activists since its past record has not always been beyond reproach. The Nobel Committee considered Mahatma Gandhi for the Peace Prize twice but did not deem him fit to be awarded the prize! Ariel Sharon and Pervez Musharraf were also nominated; therefore, their names must have been discussed and considered for the Nobel Peace Prize. Thus, the net result is that the status of Mahatma Gandhi as a peace activist and those of Ariel Sharon and General Musharraf are the same in the eyes of the Nobel Committee as none could finally get the prize! Besides, the Nobel Committee, accused of judging the world from the vantage point of Western civilization, does not truly capture the diversity of the world. And its prizes, especially for peace and literature, do not do justice to this diversity. Furthermore, the award of the Nobel prizes has also aroused diplomatic sensitivities and created uproar in international politics in the past. For example, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize is reminiscent of the award of Nobel Prize in Literature to the renowned anti-communist Russian/Soviet writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1970) and later the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to eminent Soviet nuclear physicist turned activist-dissident Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov (1975). The sensitive nature of these awards from the diplomatic angle was quite understandable in the context of Cold War. Neither of these two recipients was allowed to personally collect the prize by the Soviet authorities. The point is that Nobel prizes cannot claim political neutrality. They have been given with political underpinnings in the past.

Nevertheless, the announcement of the Nobel prizes remains an important international calendar event. With all its pitfalls, the announcement is eagerly awaited because it comes from a quarter of the world which has mattered most in the last more than two centuries; and, despite relative economic decline, it continues to matter more than any other part of the world. At least, in the realm of ideas, Western Europe and the United States still lead the world.

In the latest award of the Nobel Peace Prize, China finds itself at the receiving end. Although the 14th Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 and the Nobel Prize in Literature was given to dissident writer Gao Xingjian in 2000, the Dalai Lama was already in exile as a refugee and moreover was not ‘proper Han Chinese’, while Gao Xingjian was a French citizen. The present development warrants discussion at least from three angles: Liu Xiaobo’s struggle for human rights and democracy, the Nobel Committee’s citation given to Liu Xiabo, and China’s reaction to the award of the prize to Liu Xiabo.

In recent times, Liu Xiaobo has become a face of China’s liberal voice. He was first noticed when he was imprisoned for “counter-revolutionary propaganda and incitement to crime” in the 1989 student movement in China. He was released in 1991 but with restrictions on his right to speak. He was kept under surveillance (May 1995-January 1996) and then put in a labour camp for re-education (October 1996-October 1999). His latest crime was in helping as a lead author to draft Charter 08, which drew inspiration from the Charter ‘77 movement in Czechoslovakia and focused on free speech and multi-party elections. Charter 08 was published in December 2008; Liu was arrested two days before its release.

With all due respect to Liu’s convictions about liberal democracy and the courage he has shown to stand by his conviction, it is difficult to accept that his movement for liberal values has widespread mass support. There is little hope that he and other liberal intellectual leaders can provide leadership to the Chinese people the way their predecessors did in the early half of the 20th century – first during the May 4 nationalist movement and then during the revolutionary movement of the Chinese Communist Party. It is not clear which social section today’s Chinese liberal intellectuals are addressing. Even the much-celebrated Charter 08 remains only a political document, which talks of the right to free speech, multi-party democracy, human rights and last but not the least a free market. It very vaguely touches on the issue of distributive justice which is, in any way, not the focus of this charter. Charter 08 appears to be reproducing classical liberalism of which free market is one of the cornerstones. But the world has witnessed that the market is not as fair and just an entity as Charter 08 presupposes. Therefore, the charter certainly does not take up the issue of deprived sections of China. Then there is the middle class of China. Today’s middle-class world wide, at least where capitalism has grown substantially, is not anti-status quo the way it was in 17th, 18th and 19th century Europe where classical liberalism with the slogan of equality, liberty and fraternity emerged against monarchy, feudalism and the papacy. During that period, the middle class was looking for an accommodation within the state system, whereas today’s middle class is very well-accommodated in that sphere. The middle class today is very much pro-state and authority, and is more concerned about stability and prosperity. Whether today’s China’s mall-going middle class is seriously concerned about multi-party democracy remains debatable, especially when practically everybody there is free to join the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and free to climb up the ladder of power within the party at least theoretically. It is really not clear which social section’s aspiration the Chinese liberal intellectuals are expressing. Therefore, the chances of these intellectuals repeating history and becoming representatives of the larger public remain bleak.

Since this is the first time that a Han Chinese who is also a Chinese citizen has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-government stand, the nervousness of the Chinese authorities is understandable. The Chinese government jammed the broadcast of the news of the award of the prize by foreign broadcasters in China. The English web-sites of Chinese newspapers virtually blacked out the news. The only news Xinhua is carrying is the condemnation by the Chinese foreign ministry of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiabo. According to the foreign ministry, Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who has been imprisoned for the attempted crime of subverting the Chinese state, and awarding the prize to him runs counter to the claims of the Nobel Prize. Even in the months preceding the award of the prize, there were reports of the Chinese government trying to exercise its influence to stop the committee from awarding it to Liu Xiaobo. After the announcement, the foreign ministry spokesperson stated that this award would adversely impact China’s relationship with Norway in spite of Norway making it clear that the Nobel committee is not controlled by the government.

Considering the politically sensitive and strong citation that the Nobel Committee has given in its remarks – “China’s new status entails increased responsibility. China is in breach of several international agreements to which it is a signatory, as well as of its own provisions concerning political rights” – against China, the Chinese reaction to the award is quite understandable. The remarks of the Nobel Committee sound as if they have been issued by some government. However, it could still be argued that China could have used this opportunity to show resilience and confidence in its power by choosing not to react and showing indifference to the news. But China has missed this opportunity. Theoretically, the inconsistent position of CCP rule and its ideological claims in times of globalization appear to have made the party insecure about its own position. Therefore, sometimes, it appears to be transferring its insecurities on to its neighbours like, for instance, it transfers its insecurity over Tibet on to India by reacting disproportionately and treating every crisis as an existential one. It has conveyed a similar message by blacking out news of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiabo claiming that this development will adversely affect its relations with Norway. The pleaders for an alternative world-view who see China at the forefront of providing such an option must answer how Noam Chomsky, the bitterest critic of US hegemonic policies in our times, can have his freedom and even hold his professorship in MIT, but not Liu Xiabo in China. Is this a question of the resilience of power?

As for the Nobel Committee itself, the announcement note of the Nobel Prize for 2010 reflects the typical Western ambivalence about China. The note has talked about China’s economic achievements which are unparallel in history and then alludes to China’s perceived irresponsible and so-called unacceptable behaviour concerning political rights. The Western world, particularly governments, is unsure whether China is an opportunity or a challenge. However, even if they consider it as a challenge, China basically remains an economic challenge which is compromising their position as the economic leader of the world. The Western world does not have any direct physical threat from China the way many Asian nations perceive the heat of Chinese assertion both in economic and political realms. Whereas Asian countries are hardly bothered about the condition of human rights and the prospects of democracy in China, Western countries time and again insist on making these issues a reference point in their strategy towards China without taking ground realities into account. The point is, whichever policy, be it containment or engagement or congagement, that Western countries may like to pursue vis-à-vis China, it will not succeed as long as it does not accommodate the concerns of China’s neighbours for whom issues like human rights and democracy in China are not that attractive. Neither do these issues appear attractive for the broader Chinese society.

Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses ( at

Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA)

The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), is a non-partisan, autonomous body dedicated to objective research and policy relevant studies on all aspects of defence and security. Its mission is to promote national and international security through the generation and dissemination of knowledge on defence and security-related issues. The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) was formerly named The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

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