The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese intellectual serving an 11-year jail sentence on subversion charges, has accomplished two great things.
First, the award has undermined the image of a monolithic China whose 1.3 billion people are content to be governed by the Communist party. As an advocate for democracy and human rights, Liu has been jailed twice before. In December 2009, he was arrested again because he was one of the most prominent signatories of Charter 08, a manifesto of democratic values and aspirations that was signed by thousands of Chinese citizens.
The second thing the Nobel prize accomplished was that it exposed a side of the Chinese regime that, until now, Beijing has been able to shield from view. There is no need to rely on Julian Assange to learn that Chinese officials exert intense pressure on foreign countries and companies to get their way—especially when the legitimacy of the regime is at stake. Last week, for example, a spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry declared the Nobel ceremony an “anti-China farce” and denounced the Nobel committee as “clowns.”
Indeed, Beijing’s sensitivity over Liu is so extreme that the government cancelled the Chinese tour of a musical production about the disabled, starring the Norwegian winner of the 2009 Eurovision song contest. The consequences for the Chinese people, however, are much more serious. During the days leading up to the Nobel ceremony, China placed hundreds of individuals under tight restrictions. Liu’s lawyer and friend Mo Shaoping and the law professor He Weifang—both signatories of Charter 08—were turned away at the airport last month, possibly to ensure that they did not travel to Oslo. On December 9, Chinese security forces detained Zhang Zuhua, a key drafter of Charter 08.
At the Nobel ceremony, a chair was left empty for Liu. His wife, Liu Xia, also could not attend. She has been forcibly sequestered at home and threatened with losing permission to visit her husband. This was the first time in 74 years that no one was able to represent a prize winner at the award ceremony. Lynn Chang, an American violinist, performed at the ceremony despite his admission that he thought twice before accepting the invitation, fearing retaliation against his relatives in China and the American academic institutions with which he is affiliated.
To his credit, Chang did the right thing. But his dilemma is hardly unique. Beijing’s reach and influence is vast. Over a dozen countries with diplomatic missions in Oslo, mainly authoritarian nations, declined invitations to the ceremony.
Nor is it surprising that no top U.N. official attended the event. Outrageous, yes. But not surprising. When Liu won the peace prize, a spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed the secretary general’s hope that “any differences on this decision will not detract from advancement of the human rights agenda globally or the high prestige and inspirational power of the award.” Ban pointedly did not call for Liu’s release. Nor did Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, attend the award ceremony. Pillay claimed that she was otherwise engaged with business in Geneva on December 10, international human rights day. The fact that the most significant gathering in support of human rights on December 10 was in Oslo, not Geneva, should be taken to heart.
Still, there is some good news. Many countries sent representatives to the ceremony. After the European Union rebuked Serbia, an EU aspirant, for not attending, Serbia changed course. Ukraine also reversed its decision not to attend. And perhaps the diplomats who did go to Oslo used the occasion to consult with each other about how to counter Chinese strong-arm diplomacy in Tibet, against Taiwan, and in Xinjiang Province.
President Obama marked the occasion of the award to Liu, his fellow peace prize laureate, by saying that the values the jailed dissident espouses “are universal, his struggle is peaceful, and he should be released as soon as possible.” The president will have another chance to deliver this message of support in January, when Chinese dictator Hu Jintao attends a summit in Washington. Let’s hope that when Hu visits, President Obama and his diplomats will be as public about American values as China’s officials are about theirs.