The decision to award this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese political dissident who is serving an 11-year jail sentence, has prompted a great deal of comment and debate. Everyone is trying to understand the Nobel Committee’s motives and the significance of its choice.
In both China and the West, doubts have been expressed about the reasons and intentions behind this decision. Is Liu Xiaobo a man of peace? Isn’t the Nobel Committee straying from the prize’s original goal? Why does the West seem to be hailing this choice while the Chinese authorities are reacting with threats and censorship?
Reporters Without Borders would like to participate in this debate and provide some answers to these questions, not for those who are already convinced of the rightness of Liu’s cause, but for the sceptics and those who have not made up their mind.
For those who criticise Liu and Norway’s Nobel Committee, those who question the purpose and appropriateness of awarding him the peace prize, Reporters Without Borders is offering the comments and arguments of a number of Chinese and international academics, sinologists, lawyers and human rights activists. They will help you to understand all the aspects of this controversy.
-Criticism 1 : « Liu is a “western-style” dissident. He has been very influenced by his visits to the west and conceives of democracy in a western way. Some people say it would be impossible to implement western democracy in China and that Liu’s goals could never be realised. So he is fighting for a fiction, for something that has no bearing on Chinese reality. »
Perry Link, a specialist in contemporary Chinese literature, teaches at the universities of Princeton and California-Riverside in the United States. He has written books about China, has translated many Chinese works into English and, together with Andrew J. Nathan, he translated The Tiananmen Papers about the events of 1989. He has been banned from visiting China since 1996.
« Liu Xiaobo was indeed influenced by Western thinkers in the 1980s when he formed his outlook. When he traveled to Oslo and New York in 1988-89, however, he was very disppointed with Western intellectuals and highly critical of stylish "critical theory" as practiced in the West. So people who argue that during his travel to the West he was influenced in favor of the West are simply incorrect. The effect was the opposite.
Charter 08 reflects universal values. Some of its language is drawn from France and the U.S., but it also draws on language of human rights documents from South Africa, Taiwan, Czechoslovakia, and of course the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. People who say its ideas are essentially "Western" are simply incorrect.
To say that Liu's "goals can never be reached" is groundless and, if I may be frank, a bit silly. To me this sounds like a partisan political statement, not a responsible prediction of history. »
-Criticism 2 : « Liu Xiaobo is not well known in China. The news of his prize has had little impact in his own country. The overwhelming majority of the Chinese population has never heard of him. So why did the Nobel Committee choose someone with such a low profile in his own country? »
Teng Biao (滕彪) is a lawyer and human rights activist who teaches law at the University of Law and Politics in Beijing (中国政法大学). He was one of the founders of Open Constitution Initiative (公盟推荐), an NGO that was closed by the authorities. He has also supported dissident activists such as Hu Jia and Chen Guangcheng when they have been arrested and tried.
« Freedom of expression does not exist in China. Many journalists and writers are in prison. The very strict control of information prevents the general public from knowing the identity of these political prisoners.
The authorities do everything possible to maintain an educational system that promotes ignorance and forgetfulness. As a result, the immense majority of the population lacks what is necessary to understand certain events of the past and accepts the government’s version without questioning. Many young Chinese are completely unaware of the events of June 1989, the Zhao Ziyang affair and the Cultural Revolution.
Liu Xiaobo has nonetheless been fighting for peace, democracy and human rights. He has kept it up for 20 years. He enjoys a great deal of prestige among Chinese who aspire to democracy. He is one of the leading initiators of Charter 08, which outlines the required political reforms and which is destined to have more and more influence on intellectuals and, through them, the rest of Chinese society. Liu is excellent as a representative of Chinese intellectuals and human rights activists.
Society’s pioneers are necessarily part of a minority. They point out the direction of history to follow. They possess an intuitive awareness. They say what is left unsaid by others. They speak of the fears, abuses, injustices and reality that the majority dares not talk about.
The Nobel Committee’s decision is going to accelerate the process of bringing peace to China. All of the Chinese who possess this intuitive awareness thank Liu Xiaobo from the bottom of their heart. »
-Criticism 3 : « Liu is not representative of the Chinese population. As an academic, intellectual, philosophy professor and writer, he is part of the elite. He does not represent the masses and had an education that is very different from what most Chinese receive. A Nobel Peace Prize laureate should be able to represent his fellow citizens. How can he do that? »
Li Xiaorong (李晓蓉）taught philosophy at a university in Beijing. She went to study and become an academic scholar in the US. She founded Chinese human rights groups and has written numerous articles about human rights and democracy. She has been barred from returning to China.
« Until there is democracy, there is no way to know who represents at least more than 50% of those Chinese who would vote in a general election. If you believe that democratic participation is a universal human right, then, speaking up for the protection of that right, which is what Liu Xiaobo did, is giving voice to all the Chinese who have been deprived of that basic human right.
In a country with no free press, where free speech can be criminalized, it takes courage to speak up for truth and justice. This is what a public intellectual can do and is best at doing – using their ideas, writing and analytic skills to stimulate critical thinking, to tell the truth, to voice concerns and grievances for the voiceless people, to articulate aspirations and express ideas for the powerless people, to promote the good cause. In this regard, Liu Xiaobo, through his writings, has become a courageous and powerful spokesperson, a representative, for the Chinese people's aspirations for freedom and democracy.
The fact that Liu Xiaobo has been barred by authorities from publishing his articles, from having a voice in domestic media, is due to press censorship and should not be taken to mean that he does not voice the concerns and hopes of the Chinese people. Silencing him and then accusing him not voicing the concerns of the masses, or not representing them, is a deeply flawed argument. The only way for anyone to draw such a conclusion is to lift censorship in China, let Liu Xiaobo's articles and books circulate freely, and allow readers discuss his ideas freely. »
-Criticism 4 : Alfred Nobel wrote in his will that his annual peace prize should go to the person who “...shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Liu does not seem to have played a leading role in promoting peace in China or the world as whole. What has Liu done for peace? In what way does he differ from an ordinary political dissident?
Wang Longmeng (王龙蒙) participated in the Tiananmen Square student movement in 1989. He now lives in Paris, where he campaigns for democracy in China and is one of the leaders of the Sino-Tibetan Association (汉藏联盟).
« In my view, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize serves as a warning to China’s despotic government from the international community. It is a signal telling the Chinese Communist Party that it must follow the direction of history, that it cannot continue opposing the rest of humanity. No people or country has ever developed its civilisation independently of the rest of the world.
All governments must accept humanity’s common values, which are freedom, equality and fraternity for every person, regardless of their origin or the colour of their skin. China is no exception. This prize has highlighted the supremacy of human rights.
It is not surprising that the Chinese government is angry and feels humiliated, because it is not a government that has been elected by the people, it does not represent China’s 1.3 billion inhabitants.
Liu Xiaobo has been tireless in his efforts to point out these facts. The government was afraid that the Chinese people would be inspired by his writings and would turn against the authorities with the aim of overthrowing the dictatorship. So the government had to make Liu disappear physically and intellectually.
It is only to be expected that Chinese expatriates do not regard the decision to award the Nobel to Liu Xiaobo in the same way as Chinese citizens in China. Objectively, many democrats in China would have deserved this prize. But, because of his prominence, his knowledge and his current situation, Liu was more deserving.
In my opinion, there are three categories of people who are opposed to this decision. Firstly, there are those who do not understand, or are mistaken, about who Liu Xiaobo is. They can still be convinced.
Secondly, there are the mean-minded or jealous people who think they deserved the prize and wonder why it was awarded to Liu Xiaobo. It will be impossible to convince them
And finally, there are those who support the Chinese government and Communist Party. They are trying by all means possible to slander Liu Xiaobo and sow confusion within the international community and human rights activists. Any Chinese citizen who won the prize would have been criticized by all three categories. Their real target is the Nobel Prize, not the laureate. »
-Criticism 5 : « Europe is trying to give China lessons in democracy when its own democracy is far from perfect. Shouldn’t this decision by the Nobel Committee be regarded as an inappropriate attempt to lecture China? »
Chang Ping (长平) is a columnist and press freedom activist who lost his job as editor of Nanfang Dushi Bao (南方都市报) in May 2008 after publishing an editorial about the unrest in Tibet. He has been banned from being published in the newspaper Nanfang Zhoumo (南方周末).
« Since the 1990s, Chinese society has been educated to think in terms of consolidating a market economy and implementing a new legal system subject to political principles. As a result, the Chinese have tended to believe that there is no such thing as justice and that everything comes down to an exchange of interests.
As the economy developed, many Chinese thought that the lure of profits and the pressure of business interests would increasingly deter westerners from criticising human rights violations in China. This year’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize has at least served at a warning that there are still forces in the world that courageously cling to justice, freedom and peace.
Western democracy still has many faults but that does not stop Europeans trying to do things in support of peace in the world. If western human rights defenders were to encourage the Chinese, I don’t think it would be a problem. On the contrary, I think it would be a very good thing. Democracy is not a result, it is a process. A process in which everyone can express their point of view. Encouraging the non-violent pursuit of justice is always the right thing to do. The Chinese don’t need people teaching them democracy, but they need to be encouraged and supported. »
-Criticism 6 : « The Nobel Peace Prize is getting too politicized. First U.S. President Barack Obama then Liu Xiaobo. The Nobel Committee is straying too far from the prize’s original intentions and is trying to meddle in international affairs and in internal affairs that do not concern it. »
Shirin Ebadi, , Iranian human rights lawyer and founder of the Tehran-based Human Rights Defenders Centre. She received the Rafto Prize in 2001 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her commitment to civil liberties in Iran.
«When human rights are respected according to a universal standard, they enable human beings anywhere to live in harmony. They have nothing to do with west or east, capitalism or socialism. Paying tribute to a human rights activist is not an interference in an internal matter because these rights are universal. Liu Xiaobo is an activist and I regret that he is in prison. But I am also convinced that he will be freed soon. I hope the Chinese government is going to understand that it was a mistake to jail him and to threaten countries to get them to stay away from the ceremony. I am sorry that my country, Iran, has decided not to take part in this universal tribute to a human rights activist.»
Jean-François Julliard is secretary-general of the press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders.
« We think this prize is useful and will help those who are struggling to open up a democratic space in China.Twenty-three retired senior officials have signed an open letter calling for implementation of the free speech and media freedom guarantees in article 35 of the Chinese constitution. That’s exactly what Liu is calling for!
The Nobel Peace Prize protects and precipitates change. Desmond Tutu in South Africa, Andrei Sakharov in the Soviet Union, Shirin Ebadi in Iran and Lech Walesa in Poland have all said again and again that this prestigious award helped them to continue their fight against authoritarian regimes and, in Tutu’s case, apartheid.
After the disappointment of Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize last year, the Nobel committee has gone back to defending those who pay dearly for their commitment to the struggle for fundamental freedoms. We hope that Liu’s Nobel will mark the start of a return by the international community to firm and determined support for political dissidents and prisoners of conscience. »
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