Nobel Peace Prize Raises Questions about the Credibility of the West’s Desire for Political Reform in China

By UCBerkeleyAAADS

By L. Ling-chi Wang

Professor Emeritus, UC Berkeley

Like the Nobel Prize for Literature awarded in 2000 to the relatively unknown Chinese writer Gao Xingjian, this year’s Peace Prize was given to Liu Xiaobo, an intellectual dissident better known outside than inside China, now serving an eleven-year sentence in China for advocating democracy and human rights. As Associated Press Writers Charles Hutzler And Karl Ritter, who broke the news on October 8, 2010, correctly noted, Liu is “virtually unknown among ordinary Chinese.” However, this fact did not inhibit them from immediately suggesting that the award would have the effect of “lending encouragement to China’s dissident community and sending a rebuke to the authoritarian government,” an effect that appeared to be the intent of Nobel Prize Committee.

I don’t believe for a minute that the members of Nobel Committee had the interest and welfare of China and its people in mind. Nor do I think they had any interest in seeing genuine, indigenous political and judicial reform in China when they announced the Peace Award to Liu Xiaobo. Instead, they chose Liu as a person whose ideology and politics were akin to their own, that is, as someone hostile to and persecuted by the regime they wanted changed and as someone who, upon being anointed by the Committee, might have the potential to become a political martyr around whom a political movement for regime change in China could be built. In other words, they naively and mistakenly thought that as a Nobel Prize recipient, Liu might become a Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa, Vaclav Havel, or Aung San Suu Kyi.

Unfortunately for the Committee, Liu does not have the kind of political visibility, credibility and most importantly, the political following that Mandela, Walesa, Havel, or Suu Kyi had in South Africa, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Burma respectively. Unlike them, Liu has done very little in terms of preparing the Chinese public with a comprehensive and comprehensible political agenda and plan or in political organizing at the grassroots level.  Imitating Charter 77 of Vaclav Havel and importing it into China as Charter ’08 is not original and hardly intelligible or relevant to ordinary laboring people across China. Some Chinese intellectuals who like Liu, have been exposed to Western thought, institutions, and social and political life, have no problems understanding his platform.  But no doubt many will question its relevance and applicability to the particular political, economical, and cultural situation in China and recent Chinese history. Liu’s simplistic and one-size-fits-all approach to political reform in China is both audacious and ludicrous, For a tiny self-appointed elite in far-off Norway to call into existence a political movement for reform in China would be like God creating the universe in six days, as described in Chapter 1 in the Book of Genesis.

Instead, if the Committee had been sincere and serious about political reform in China, and if it had had the slightest inkling of what has been going on socially and politically in China during the last three decades besides spectacular economic achievements, it would not have chosen Liu Xiaobo. Instead, it would have given the award to Premier Wen Jiabao, who has been speaking out forcefully and repeatedly for political reform, even though there are many opposed to his project within the government and his ruling party.

Undoubtedly some will disagree with me on the grounds that as the prime minister and very much a member of the ruling party, Wen Jiabao would be unable to bring about reform from within. Besides, they could argue, Wen has not yet put any of his ideas into practice. To this I would respond: did not Committee award the Nobel Prize to President Barack Obama last year based on his vision and ideas for change in the U.S. at the beginning of his administration, before he had a chance to demonstrate what he was capable of doing for his country and the world?  If the Committee can do that for Obama, why could it not throw the weight of its prestigious endorsement behind Wen Jiabao, to encourage his efforts and perhaps silence his critics and naysayers long enough for him to try out his ideas? I would even argue that Wen Jiabao would have had better chance of success in China than Obama had in the U.S., at the very least because of Wen’s profound experience of and knowledge about the workings of the Chinese government, political party, and society. Wen had the organization behind him and the means at his disposal to pave the way toward achieving more relevant and lasting reform than Obama. And an award to Wen would have elicited cheers instead of jeers from the people of China, who might have taken it as encouragement of efforts towards indigenous reform rather than the usual support of critics of China that make the Nobel Committee seem to so many as anti-Chinese.

I think that the award to Liu not only evidences lack of sincerity and credibility but that it is a disservice to the recipient. Far worse, it suggests total lack of understanding of the Chinese society and displays no respect of the Chinese people’s welfare, aspirations, and autonomy. As far as I am concerned, the Nobel Committee missed a golden opportunity to encourage political reform by choosing, as usual, from a position of ignorance.