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Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner, should not be in prison. In punishing his peaceful protest so harshly, the Chinese party-state has made a grave ethical mistake and a major political miscalculation. However, there is a strong argument against the Nobel Committee’s decision to award him the Peace Prize.
I’m not convinced that Liu Xiaobo has contributed to peace. In his will, Alfred Nobel stated that the Nobel Peace Prize should be awarded to “the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”. Liu is a political agitator, not a peace activist. True, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to human rights activists in the past, but it seems that the Nobel Committee is running the risk of creating a ‘democracy’ prize or a ‘freedom of speech’ prize, rather than awarding it to an individual who has truly contributed to pacifying conflict.
There has been a predictable swell of self-congratulation in the West. The Chinese, the argument runs, do not have freedom of speech and we do. So from our superior ethical perspective, we have bravely rewarded those elements of Chinese society that are striving to make China more ‘civilised’. Except that this is flawed logic. Just as there is not complete repression in China, there is not total freedom of speech in the West. What about Julian Assange? A dissident if ever there was one. Possibly about to be tried for espionage in the United States. Certainly in one sense there is a difference. Assange leaked confidential information and Liu Xiaobo expressed an opinion. But in another sense, he broke the law and so did Liu. There are some things that no government will allow its citizens to say. There are more of these in China, but it is foolish to believe we do not have limits on free speech. Consider the laws in place to prevent inciting violence or racial hatred; governments limit citizens’ rights to express dangerous opinions.
The question is, are Liu Xiaobo’s suggestions dangerous, not just to the government but to China? From one perspective they absolutely are. Liu suggests many admirable things, including freedom of press, religion and association, and an independent judiciary. These are ideals that are shared by many within the ruling CCP and are already being worked towards in China. The proposal of Liu’s that was regarded as dangerous by the government was his call for a representative democracy. The West supports him because they do not understand how complex a job the CCP is doing or how well they are managing it. They are attempting to maintain balance in a nation of 1.3 billion, some of whom are living lifestyles that are very similar to ours, with careers, social lives and shopping habits that would be recognised from New York to Sydney. Others are living a subsistence existence eking a living from the soil in remote areas of rural China, still on the border of extreme poverty. Could a democratic government represent both these extremes? Even if some party cobbled together a majority, could they implement legislation in the face of opposition that represented a Third World electorate against a first world, or vice-versa? The CCP is not truly representative but neither is it accountable to a single social constituency: it is performing a constant balancing act and doing so remarkably well. What a structurally complex and developing country like China needs is strong government, able to impose reforms without being concerned about making itself popular in our politicians’ media-friendly, sound-bite way.
The humanitarian consequences of destabilising China’s government are unimagineable. The anarchy and factionalism that tore the country apart before the arrival of the Communists should be a lesson to those who claim that social stability in China is an empty concept used by the government to justify whatever it wants. Liu’s ideas are a threat to Chinese stability. He shouldn’t be jailed for voicing them but it is short-sighted of us in the West to whole-heartedly support him and pat ourselves on the back for being so liberal.
Which brings me to my final point. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize was seen in China as a provocation from the West (interesting use of a peace prize). I am not saying that we should never do anything to upset the Chinese, but we have to be careful about ticking off the Chinese government like an errant schoolboy. This is not just because China will almost certainly be the world’s next superpower, but more importantly because we are trying to build international links with them, and they with us. This will be beneficial to everyone in the future. We could hardly have picked a more controversial Chinese troublemaker to award from the perspective of the government. Liu claims that 300 years of colonisation could ‘civilise’ China, because it took 100 years to ‘civilise’ Hong Kong and China is much bigger. We also could not have chosen someone more rabidly pro-Western: Liu claims that “modernisation means wholesale westernisation, choosing a human life is choosing a western way of life.” Liu is not just pro-Western, he is highly pro-American, supporting US policy towards Israel, and ironically for a human rights activist, the invasion of Iraq. It seems perverse to try to build links with another very complex and important culture, while simultaneously rewarding, in the name of ‘fundamental human rights,’ those who happen to agree with widely condemned decisions made by the West, advocate our political system, and are disrespectful and disruptive towards their own country and government.
The awarding of the Nobel Prize to Liu Xiaobo is part of a larger example of Western double-standards towards human rights in China. We view ourselves as being in a position to ‘teach’ the Chinese human rights: look at David Cameron’s patronising tone when he visited Beijing last year. Western governments are deeply concerned about the incarceration of Liu Xiaobo, not so bothered about the detention for nearly a decade of the men in Guantanamo, some of whom are certainly innocent and haven’t even had Liu’s showcase trial. America criticises China over Tibet, with the blood of Iraq dripping from its hands. The US condemns China for selling arms to African dictators who will use them on civilians, and then gives arms to Israel, knowing it will use them against Palestinians. My point is not that because America does these things, it is OK for China to follow suit. My point is that China is a powerful and sovereign state and we must realise our own flaws before jumping behind the Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Peace Prize to disruptive elements in Chinese society.