Norway’s Nobel Peace Prize committee has done the right thing in awarding this year’s prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. The furious reaction of the Chinese state shows just how complicated doing the right thing will become as we advance into an increasingly post-Western world.
Liu is exactly the kind of person who deserves this prize, alongside Andrei Sakharov, Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. For more than 20 years, he has consistently advocated nonviolent change in China, always in the direction of more respect for human rights, the rule of law and democracy. He has paid for this peaceful advocacy with years of imprisonment and harassment. Unlike last year’s winner, Barack Obama, who got the prize just for what he had promised to do, Liu gets it for what he has actually done.
The Chinese authorities tried hard to prevent him getting it. They directly threatened the Nobel committee with negative consequences for Chinese-Norwegian relations. They have since described the award as an “obscenity,” forbidden any mention of it in the censored Chinese media, placed Liu’s wife under house arrest, detained other critical intellectuals, canceled export talks with Norway — and are now doubtless debating how to play it from here.
Meanwhile, in the capitals of the West, many are quietly questioning whether this really was such a good decision. These questions are important, but one hypocritical or self-deceiving argument must be demolished at once. This is the claim that it will not be good even for dissidents if a leading dissident receives the Nobel Prize. One used to hear a similar case made by Western politicians who declined to meet with Sakharov, Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel. Commenting on an American elder statesman’s visit to Moscow, one Russian writer told me, “He says it would not be good for Sakharov if they met, but what he really means is that it would not be good for him if he met Sakharov.”
It is for the dissidents to decide what is good for the dissidents. All the evidence we have so far suggests that Chinese dissidents are thrilled with the award, even though it means, predictably enough, that they face another crackdown. It’s not as if the Chinese Communist Party was treating them gently before. Liu was sent to jail for 11 years last year despite all the “quiet diplomacy” of Western and other politicians. By his wife’s account, he was deeply moved when he heard the news of his award in prison, and dedicated it to the “lost souls” of Tiananmen Square.
At the moment, Liu and his colleagues constitute a tiny minority of Chinese citizens. Most of their compatriots have accepted the deal proposed to them by the Communist Party since the late 1970s, and more particularly since 1989: extraordinary economic freedom, and considerable social, cultural and even intellectual freedom, so long as they do not challenge the central political pillars of the party-state. In this sense, Liu is not comparable with Mandela or Suu Kyi, leaders of oppressed mass movements.
One must acknowledge, as the Nobel committee does in its citation, that China’s unprecedented hybrid version of authoritarian capitalism has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and is delivering for many of its citizens in many ways. Unlike Myanmar or apartheid South Africa, the Chinese state enjoys a great deal of support from its people. The test will come, of course, when economic growth slows.
We simply cannot know how Liu’s compatriots will regard him in, say, 20 years. It seems almost unthinkable that things will turn upside down, as they did in Czechoslovakia, so that an isolated dissident like Havel suddenly becomes the elected president. It is slightly more imaginable that Liu becomes a litmus test for the boldness of a reformist leader. As Mikhail Gorbachev’s telephone call to Nobel Prize winner Sakharov, lifting his sentence of banishment, marked a turning point in the history of the Soviet Union, could a phone call to Nobel Prize winner Liu from, say, the next or next-but-one Chinese leader mark another stage in China’s political modernization? Tuesday’s publication of an open letter from former senior Communist Party officials demanding more freedom of expression is an indication that the hopes of reformists inside the party and dissidents outside it are not necessarily miles apart.
It is, however, entirely possible that Liu and his colleagues will remain a small minority, representing an authentic but never predominant tradition in modern Chinese history: the liberal, constitutionalist modernization that they evoke in the Charter 08 manifesto that earned Liu both prison and prize.
The fearful, offended reaction of the Chinese party-state testifies to its own insecurity and its still fundamentally Leninist inability to tolerate any genuinely autonomous sources of social and political authority. It also speaks of a deep, and more widely shared, sense of national humiliation at the hands of the West. How they would love to have the international recognition of a Nobel Prize. But who are the three Chinese, or China-related, Nobel Prize winners? Gao Xingjian, a Chinese novelist who emigrated to France and holds French citizenship, the Dalai Lama, and now Liu. Slap, slap, slap.
The Nobel citation talks of “universal” human rights. Charter 08 talks of “universal values.” But Chinese leaders hear only “Western” values and the West’s post-imperial but still imperialist quest to impose them on China.
Over the next decade, I see three approaches we in the West can take in response: capitulation, Huntingtonism or a real dialogue about universal values. Capitulation would mean bowing to Chinese blackmail — so that, for example, Western leaders would no longer receive the Dalai Lama. By Huntingtonism I mean the way Samuel Huntington envisaged us avoiding the “clash of civilizations.” This was, in essence, to say “all right, you do it your way over there and we’ll do it our way over here.” As China’s power grows, that is where we may end up. But it is definitely too soon to give up on the hope of reaching some deeper understanding of what are genuinely universal values, as opposed to only Western ones.
In this conversation, we cannot act as if the West has found all the answers, for everyone, forever —an assumption that looks more implausible by the minute. If, instead of closing up defensively like a hedgehog, China were prepared to engage confidently and even offensively in an argument about universal values, we should welcome that with open arms. The alternatives are more likely, but worse.
Timothy Garton Ash, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and professor of European studies at Oxford University. He is the author of, most recently, “Facts Are Subversive: Political Writing from a Decade Without a Name.”