Nobel Committee faces down the dragon
By Sreeram Chaulia
With the Norwegian Nobel Committee scheduled to announce the name of this
year's Peace Prize winner on October 8, speculation that jailed Chinese
democracy activist Liu Xiaobo is the frontrunner is mounting.
News agencies including Reuters and Agence France-Presse have reported that
Liu, who is serving an 11-year prison sentence in Liaoning province for
"inciting subversion of state power," is the bookmakers' favorite among 237
nominees to bag the most political of Nobel prizes.
The prognosis has clearly not gone down well in Zhongnanhai, the power center
in Beijing, where there is concern about China-bashing and sullying that could
jeopardize the country's mounting
The director of the Nobel Institute, Geir Lundestad, revealed last week that
Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Fu Jing had met him in Oslo in June to deliver
a warning that the "unfriendly gesture" of honoring Liu with the prize "would
have negative consequences" for bilateral relations between China and Norway.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed that pressure was being exerted on the
Nobel Committee on the grounds that Liu had never promoted "peace between
peoples, international friendship and disarmament." According to a ministry
spokeswoman, awarding Liu would be contrary to the ideals of the prize's
founder, Alfred Nobel.
Although China has a long track record of rebuffing and categorically
dismissing international calls for domestic political reform, its climb up the
ladder of world-power standings has somewhat increased its sensitivity to
foreign criticism of its authoritarian regime.
Chinese strategic elites have strived over the past decade to devise
image-burnishing doctrines like "peaceful rise" (Zhongguo heping jueqi),
"peaceful development" (Zhongguo heping fazhan) and "harmonious society"
(hexie shehui) to counter portrayals of Asia's behemoth as aggressive
abroad and bulldozing in its high-modernization drive at home.
Beijing is aware that its growing clout in the international system must be
accompanied by improved stature, which is a more amorphous term predicated on
accumulated goodwill, soft power and positive feelings.
Dominique Moisi's theory that emotions like fear, hope, humiliation and
admiration are as important in international politics as material factors like
economic and military calculations explains China's recent attempts to assuage,
convince or even coerce the rest of the world to accept its bona fides as a
normal state with a humane polity. China's "charm offensive" (Joshua Kurlantzick)
is thus a necessary weapon in its ascent as a great power.
Should Liu be named as the peace laureate, Beijing will deem it a
public-relations setback because the aftermath of the prize helps train
worldwide attention on the cause espoused by the winner.
Older-generation leaders in the Chinese Communist Party still remember the
contretemps that followed the Nobel Committee's selection of the exiled Tibetan
spiritual leader the Dalai Lama for the Peace Prize in 1989. The combination of
the Tiananmen Square crackdown and the conferral of the Nobel on the Dalai Lama
increased China’s isolation to its highest level since the Mao Zedong era and
deterred foreign direct investment and economic growth in the early 1990s.
Liu could be elevated into international celebrity by virtue of the prize,
shining renewed light on China's dark spots, including political prisoners.
Although the Barack Obama administration of the United States has thus far
dealt with China on pragmatic rather than ideological terms, the
democratization drumbeat will become deafening, at least for a while, if Liu
wins the prize. Washington then might resurrect the old concern about
What appears to particularly gall Beijing is that the Nobel Committee might
pick Liu as the 91st Peace Prize winner at a time when China is unarguably the
second-most powerful state in the world. Lundestad's recent contention - that
Chinese pressure did not prevent the Nobel Committee from feting the Dalai Lama
in 1989 and will not do so in 2010 either - seems to mock Beijing's belief that
it can translate 20 years of economic growth and muscle power into having its
way on delicate issues.
Compared to 1989, today's China does enjoy a much bigger arsenal of pressure
points and leverage instruments to deter a range of international actors from
doing what they would otherwise do for the sake of principle. Beijing enjoyed
limited success in 2009 by sending strong signals to the Obama administration
not to entertain the Dalai Lama in the White House. When Obama belatedly did
meet the Tibetan spiritual leader in February 2010, it was an in camera event
with no public photographs, in clear deference to Chinese sentiments.
Similar Chinese warnings fell on deaf ears in France, where President Nicolas
Sarkozy openly shrugged off Beijing's anger and met the Dalai Lama in Poland in
December 2008. In retaliation for this "unwise move," China threatened to
disrupt trade ties with the entire European Union and canceled a planned
China has also capitalized on its economic and strategic ties with a wide range
of countries to win diplomatic concessions on sovereignty disputes that it
considers to be its "core national interests."
One of the standard conditionalities for Chinese loans, trade and
foreign-investment largesse in Africa and Latin America has been withdrawing
recognition of Taiwan and acceptance of Tibet as an integral part of China. The
"one-China principle" is a standard feature in mainland China's checkbook
diplomacy and has worked to the disadvantage of Taipei, which finds its
international repository of state backers shrinking with each passing year.
Without question, China now has the wealth to throw around and buy silence or
acquiescence from many world capitals that find themselves in hock to the
world's biggest market and a major foreign investor. But the Nobel Committee is
a different matter altogether and has matured to define "peace" much more
liberally than the traditional "inter-state peace" that Beijing claims to stand
The mainstreaming of the international human-rights and environmental
consciousness has frequently pushed the committee to award the Peace Prize to
domestic activists for political freedom and green justice who struggle against
autocratic rulers, notably Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, Shirin Ebadi of Iran,
and Wangari Maathai of Kenya.
Some observers have predicted that the Nobel elders in Oslo will avoid "risky"
choices after last year's controversial verdict to anoint Obama. Liu's
exemplary record of sticking to non-violent means and his martyr-like halo of
sacrificing personal freedom for the sake of collective rights for the Chinese
people actually make him a safe bet.
Come Friday, should the committee plump for a candidate like Sima Samar - head
of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission - instead of odds makers'
favorite Liu, China will uncork the champagne for possibly pulling off another
But China is not quite the British Empire of the 1940s, which might have had a
hand in denying Mahatma Gandhi the Peace Prize despite his nomination on five
occasions. More crucially, the guiding philosophy of the Nobel Committee has
globalized and transformed radically since the dark days of the "White Man's
Burden." China's vulnerability to Nobel Peace Prizes cannot be wished away.
Sreeram Chaulia is Vice Dean of the Jindal School of International
Affairs (JSIA) at the OP Jindal Global University in Sonipat, India.