The Nobel Prize debate China has banned
There should be 20 empty chairs at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo on Friday. One for the laureate, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who’s in prison in China, and 19 for the diplomats from countries which have been pressured by China into not attending.
The Secretary of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Geir Lundestad, was sounding pretty bullish today nonetheless. “The most successful prizes have been the most controversial,” he told me, over the phone.
“When Carl von Ossietzky received the prize for 1935, Hitler became furious. When Andrei Sakharov and Lech Walesa received their prizes the old men in the Kremlin became furious. When Dalai Lama and Liu Xiaobo received the prize, the Chinese authorities became furious, but these prizes stand out in our history. The Committee was prepared to speak up for human rights when many governments for various reasons held back.”
Some of the countries who appear to be boycotting the ceremony are close allies of China – Sudan, Venezuela, Cuba for example. Others are increasingly reliant on Chinese investment and trade – Vietnam, Pakistan, Kazakhstan. Most refuse to say why they won’t be there, but Reuters spoke to a rather frank Filipino diplomat who said they were staying away to avoid another fracas with China, still angry over President Benigno Aquino’s handling of a bus hijack incident in August that killed eight Hong Kong tourists. He said: “We do not want to further annoy China”.
European countries who hope that China’s growth will drag up their sinking economies know that they’ll blot their copybooks by attending the ceremony.
In early November, a Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister said that this year’s peace prize is politicised and that the choices for the European countries are clear: either challenge China’s justice system or maintain a friendly relationship.
He warned, “if they make the wrong choice, they must bear the consequences”. An oil deal Norway was negotiating with China has been put on hold indefinitely.
But the Chinese government and its supporters don’t see this as a battle between principle and power, human rights versus commerce. Zhang Wei, a Chinese academic, writing in the Global Times, says it’s a sign of the rise of new nations which has broken the West’s monopoly on power and values. “Refusing to support Liu Xiaobo’s win is a protest against the monopoly,” he wrote.
Not that the Chinese public has a chance to join this debate. The propaganda department of the Communist Party has banned any reporting of this year’s ceremony and has asked websites to tighten control in order to make sure pictures and video clips do not appear.