|Nobel Committee faces down the
By Sreeram Chaulia
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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