Chinese Political Dissident Liu Xiaobo Wins Nobel Peace Prize
Today’s announcement that Chinese political dissident Liu Xiaobo has won the Nobel Peace Prize is welcome news. The award is consistent with a longstanding tradition of the Nobel Peace Prize to honor political dissidents. In announcing the prize, the Nobel Committee stated that “The campaign to establish universal human rights also in China is being waged by many Chinese, both in China itself and abroad. Through the severe punishment meted out to him, Liu has become the foremost symbol of this wide-ranging struggle for human rights in China.”
The media is focusing on the fact that Liu is only the third recipient to receive the prize while in prison, the first two being German opposition journalist Carl von Ossietzky and, of course, Aung San Suu Kyi. But since 1960, there have been many other recipients honored for political dissent, including Martin Luther King, South Africans Albert Lutuli, Desmond Tutu, and Nelson Mandela, pro-democracy dissidents Kim Dae-jung, Carlos Belos, and Jose Ramos-Horta, and Communist dissidents Lech Walesa, Andrei Sakharov, and the Dalai Lama.
The Chinese government has responded to the announcement with outrage. “Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who has been sentenced by Chinese judicial departments for violating Chinese law,” the statement said. Awarding the peace prize to Liu “runs completely counter to the principle of the prize and is also a blasphemy to the peace prize.” The Chinese government also warned the Nobel Committee that giving the prize to Liu “would adversely affect relations between the two countries.”
The Chinese response is almost identical to Nazi Germany’s response to the Carl von Ossietzky prize. Ossietzky was editor-in-chief of the opposition newspaper Die Weltbuhne, which published numerous stories about the secret efforts of Germany to re-arm in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. Ossietsky was imprisoned for betraying military secrets. When news broke in 1935 that he had won the Nobel Peace Prize, Hitler exploded with fury, describing it as “an insult to the German people.” The German Government issued a declaration that “the award of the Nobel Prize to a notorious traitor is such a brazen challenge and insult to the New Germany that it will be followed by an appropriate unequivocal answer.” Hitler went so far as to forbid Germans from accepting Nobel Prizes and issued a decree establishing competing prizes for Germans who excelled in the arts and sciences. Hermann Goering announced the new German national prizes with rhetorical flourish: “When we see attempts to insult Germany before the world by awarding a peace prize to a traitor, to a person punished with penal servitude, then such action does not shame Germany but merely makes those ridiculous who are responsible for it.”
The Chinese response also is remarkably similar to the Soviet response when Andrei Sakharov won the prize. The Soviet official press, Tass, responded to the award of the 1975 peace prize to Sakharov by attacking the Nobel Committee: This award “only shows that the persons who awarded this prize were guided by interests other than the interests of peace.” They also attacked Sakharov, describing him as a modern-day Judas Iscariot. “It is difficult to say how [the prize money] corresponds at the official rate of exchange to the 30 pieces of silver that the ancient Judas received. The bourgeoisie has paid for services rendered, and the ‘high court’ of the West is delighted.”
As with other dissident Laureates, Liu’s voice will now command power as never before. Desmond Tutu, after he won the prize, stated that “no sooner had I got the Nobel Peace Prize than I became an instant oracle…. [Th]he prestigious prize possessed the remarkable powers of an Open Sesame…. Our case was given an imprimatur as a noble and just cause and the apartheid system stamped as unjust and evil.” If the past is any example, Liu’s prize will give him such prestige that he will be almost immune from Chinese government attack. Like other dissident Laureates, he will have much more freedom to speak without fear of reprisal, and everything he says will be taken with utter seriousness.
The prize could have broad repercussions. We could see the modern-day equivalent of what Daniel Thomas described as the “Helsinki Effect” in the Soviet Union, with human rights taking on added significance there following the signing of the Helsinki Accords. To borrow from Thomas, human rights matters today in China not “because the Communist regimes were immediately anxious to comply … [but rather] because individuals and NGOs … [will insist] that states must be accountable to their international obligations, and thereby entrapped … in a transnational process of political change structured by formal international norms.”
The Nobel Committee is adopting the same approach, using international and constitutional commitments to pressure the Communist regime to reform. As the Committee put it today, “China’s new status must entail increased responsibility. China is in breach of several international agreements to which it is a signatory, as well as of its own provisions concerning political rights. Article 35 of China’s constitution lays down that ‘Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.’ In practice, these freedoms have proved to be distinctly curtailed for China’s citizens.”