Surely any country’s government would be proud if one of its citizens were to win one of the world’s most prestigious prizes? Not if that government is China, and the favourite to win the Nobel Peace Prize is a Chinese dissident serving an 11-year jail term for trying to ‘subvert’ the state.
The dissident in question is Liu Xiaobo, a 54-year-old writer and critic who was detained in December 2008 for co-authoring a democratic manifesto called Charter 08, which listed a number of demands including freedom of association, freedom of religion and protection for private property.
Liu is reportedly being held in Jinzhou, Liaoning Province, where he’s said to share a cell with five other men that measures only about 30 square metres. Although his name is never mentioned in official Chinese media—last week when a foreign reporter asked about him at a Foreign Ministry press briefing, the ministry spokesperson didn’t repeat his name and referred to him only as “this person”—Liu is relatively well known overseas for his ongoing struggle for democratic reform in the country.
Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch announced that Liu and five others had been chosen as ‘relentless and courageous advocates of human rights’ to be honoured in November with the Alison Des Forges Award for Extraordinary Activism. In making the announcement, it said ‘all six have faced substantial threats of violence or imprisonment, but they continue to speak out and to work to create a world in which people live free of violence, discrimination, and oppression’.
And Liu is now also the bookmakers’ favourite to take home the Nobel Prize, with his candidacy having been given a recent boost when former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel and others published an article in The New York Times urging the Nobel committee to award the prize to Liu.
Having Liu win the prize would, of course, be a little embarrassing to the Chinese government. But in a case like this, the best course of action for any government is surely just to grit its teeth and wait for the publicity to pass.
Unfortunately, Chinese officials have taken a quite different approach—one that plays into the current (and, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say, growing) stereotype of an international bully.
As Reuters reported late last month, no less a figure than China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Fu Ying warned Norway that it would damage relations between the two countries if Liu is awarded the prize.
It’s hard to see what China feels it could achieve with this sort of pressure—the committee is independent, has no interests that will be at risk if it angers China and could well be tempted to select Liu exactly so it doesn’t look like it has caved into political pressure.
The problem for China of course is that although it has so far done its best to ‘shield’ its citizens from mention of Liu’s name, this becomes that little bit harder should he become, for a few hours at least, one of the most talked about people in the world.