Why the Nobel Peace award upset China

Beijing, China — Keeping dissidents locked up, blocking prominent intellectuals from leaving the country and blacking out news reports — China is pulling out all the stops to keep news about Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo out of public sight.

Beijing is even creating China’s own alternative peace prize to take attention away from the Nobel award ceremony in Oslo on Friday. Why is China doing this?

Liu’s Nobel Prize has exposed old fault lines in China: a country claiming modernity and progress, while controlling the flow of ideas and free speech.

But by trying to silence Liu, China has ensured his words are heard around the world. A man the Communist Party calls a criminal is now mentioned in the same breath as other Nobel laureates: Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Nobel committee’s decision to award the peace prize to Liu, an unrepentant dissident, has put Beijing’s leaders in a political quandary.

“Some would like to find face-saving solutions, others wanted to fight back,” says a Chinese government source who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject. “Still others didn’t care about what the people overseas say, simply suggesting to just wait and see until the wave of media attention receded.”

Liu will be a no-show in Oslo. He is serving an 11-year jail sentence for what China calls “inciting subversion of state power.”

Human rights groups, politicians and Nobel laureates have joined calls demanding the release of the 55-year-old Liu, but Beijing maintains its position.

His wife, Liu Xia, has been put under house arrest since the award was announced in October. She will be unable to receive the prize on his behalf.

To be sure, Liu’s allies say, the peace prize gives them a big morale boost.

“This Nobel Peace Prize is an affirmation of the efforts of those in China who seek for a democratic China,” says Zeng Jinyan, wife of imprisoned pro-democracy activist Hu Jia and an ardent supporter of the couple. Hu Jia was one of the top nominees for Nobel Peace Prize last year.

Shang Baojun, Liu Xiaobo’s lawyer, says he is also elated: “It’s not just an honor for him, it’s an honor for the entire nation.”

The Nobel committee commends Liu, a former college professor and literary critic, “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights.”

China dismisses that, saying Liu is a common criminal and the Nobel peace prize is all about politics.

“It’s a farce,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Jiang Yu says, noting that awarding him the prize “is a flagrant provocation and interference in China’s judicial sovereignty.”

China has expended considerable political capital and economic clout to pressure countries to shun the Nobel peace prize award ceremony in Oslo on December 10.

At least 19 countries have informed the Nobel committee that they are not attending, though they did not cite a reason.

In various capitals of the world, Chinese diplomats have waged a public relations battle. Tang Guoqiang, China’s ambassador to Norway, posted a lengthy note on the embassy’s website to explain why he thinks the award to Liu was a mistake.

“In China people enjoy freedom of expression, provided that it is exercised within the limits of the law,” Tang wrote in both Chinese and English. “The Communist Party and the Chinese government are quite capable of accepting criticisms and doing self-criticisms for improvement. It is just often overlooked by outsiders, especially the Western world.”

China has long had a love-hate relationship with the Nobel Prize committee.

Privately, many Chinese I have met put a lot of premium on the annual awards, not just for the monetary prize but for the prestige it confers on the recipients. They bemoan the fact that few Chinese from the mainland have been given such an honor.

For years, they have waited for the time when one of China’s most eminent writers — like Mao Dun or Shen Congwen — would get a Nobel for literature. Both authors died in their twilight years without getting the recognition. Chinese Nobel laureates to date have been mostly scientists and writers living outside China.

Even though this year’s recipient is from mainland China, some Chinese reject the choice.

“The Nobel Peace Prize committee is just trying to embarrass the Chinese government,” says a mid-level government official who declined to be identified. “What contribution has Liu Xiaobo made to world peace?”

He believes the committee’s decision is a thinly-veiled sleight to the country’s national honor, or as he puts it, “another Western conspiracy to put down China.”

As a newly minted Nobel peace laureate, Liu will now acquire a distinct political clout and respectability, says a Chinese political analyst who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.

“He will now be standing side-by-side with the likes of Aung San Suu Kyi, Mandela, Obama and the Dalai Lama,” says the analyst. “That’s what the Chinese leaders dread.”

On a personal level, he adds, senior leaders view vocal dissidents like Liu with “extreme contempt,” in part because they don’t understand why they get so much attention overseas.

And on a policy level, says Victor Li, a Beijing-based filmmaker, “they hate to see these people derailing, in their view, the high-speed train they have built towards ‘New China.'”

Peking University professor Zha Daojiong cites other reasons why China is so upset.

“Chinese society is probably not interested in being reminded of the watershed event in 1989,” he explains, referring to the bloody crackdown of the Tiananmen protests in June 1989, during which Liu Xiaobo played a prominent role in supporting student protesters.

“That reluctance was reinforced by the association with the Dalai Lama, another figure granted the same (Nobel) prize,” he adds.

One day before the Nobel award ceremony in Oslo, China for the first time gave out the “Confucius Peace Award,” an apparent counter to the Nobel peace prize. A wise idea? I wondered.

The award was given to Lien Chan, Taiwan’s former vice president who supports peaceful reunification with the mainland. But he apparently was not informed of his win ahead of the announcement.

“We know who Confucius is, but don’t know anything about the prize,” Lien’s spokesman told CNN earlier. Lien was a no-show at the ceremony held in Beijing on Thursday.

China’s heavy-handed tactics over the peace prize may backfire. These measures have merely given Liu and his supporters a platform to get better known.

“How many people in China really know Liu?” asks the filmmaker Li. “How many people really care about his cause? By over-reacting, a big one-billion country looks like it cannot tolerate a little criticism.”

They have also put the spotlight back on China’s controversial human rights record.

A Chinese friend puts it succinctly: “Once China’s hardliners put Liu Xiaobo in prison for 11 years, there were no more good options left for the leadership. Whatever they do, they lose.”

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