A brave choice

09.10.10 Publication:

They are not always known for their bravery. Too often, they follow fashionable sentiment, in a rather weak way. But this year the Nobel Peace Prize Committee has made a bold and admirable choice in Liu Xiaobo, the dissident who China locked up last year on an 11-year sentence for the terrible crime of campaigning for democracy. China’s rude and noisy response that this is an outrage that will damage China-Norway relations in some unspecified way only confirms the validity and merit of the choice.

Some might disagree: they will say that the Peace prize should be directed at those who promote international peace, rather than those, like Mr Liu, who campaign for human rights and democracy inside their countries. Such an award, says China, is an interference in its domestic politics and in its sovereignty.

Yes it is, I would reply, and that is why I like it. Other governments or international institutions are not well placed to interfere in domestic sovereignty. They risk being accused of hypocrisy—how can governments that are busy expelling Roma gypsies, outsourcing immigration policy to Libya or locking up terrorism suspects without a trial lecture others on human rights?—and have too many other interests, including commerce and security, to consider. But the Nobel Peace Prize Committee can do so freely: it is accountable only to the Nobel Foundation, to the Norwegian Parliament and, more loosely, to global public opinion. The fact that Norway is not a member of the European Union is an advantage: the Committee need feel no constraints from European diplomacy or the delicacies of the effort to forge a common foreign and security policy.

For anyone free from accusations of hypocrisy, Liu Xiaobo is as excellent a cause as was Aung San Suu Kyi, the detained Burmese pro-democracy campaigner when she was awarded the Peace Prize in 1991. Since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, which followed both workers’ protests for better conditions and for control of inflation, and students’ protests for democracy, the campaign for political reform in China has largely gone underground.

Bit by bit, over the following 20 years as the country has become richer and in many respects freer, it has become permissible to speak up in general terms in favour of democracy. But two things have remained anathema to the Chinese authorities: the first unacceptable act is to question directly the present or future role of the Communist Party in the government of China; the second is to move from individual statements to become in any way an organized group.

What Mr Liu did two years ago was both of those unacceptable things: he co-wrote a manifesto called Charter 08, named in homage to the Charter 77 movement led in cold war Czechoslovakia by Vaclav Havel, that called for multi-party democracy and in effect an end to Communist Party monopolization of power. And by inviting others to sign the Charter, he and his fellow signatories threatened to become a real nucleus for opposition to the authorities. For that reason, he was immediately arrested, to intimidate the others. Until the award of the Nobel Peace Prize, that intimidation had worked.

Probably, it still will. Although the spread of the internet and the proliferation of newspapers and magazines has complicated the authorities’ task in silencing dissent, they are still remarkably successful. Editors know where the red lines are drawn, and they obey them. Criticism of public policies is allowed, and even in some cases encouraged, as a form of safety valve and of public accountability, but criticism of the political system is not. Subversive discussion on the internet is swiftly detected and shut down. Mr Liu is, as a result, barely known in China.

Nevertheless, an award of this kind, with all the international attention and media coverage it attracts, does increase the difficulty for the Chinese authorities in controlling the flow of information. It also makes it harder for foreign governments to ignore the issue. Most likely, when the histories are written of how eventually China moved to some form of democracy, probably at a time when the spread of the taxation of incomes provokes irresistible middle-class demands for representation, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize will merit only a footnote. But it is an admirable footnote, a footnote of which the Peace Prize Committee can be justly proud. And it is a footnote which stands a small chance of spreading the word inside China for democracy and, just as important, for bravery and for principles.