Honoring Dissident Liu Xiaobo Nobel Prize Is Slap in the Face for China

The dissident Liu Xiaobo has become the first Chinese person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. With its decision, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has taken a stand against the growing arrogance of China's rulers.


Six prisoners -- five criminals and a philosopher -- share a 30-square-meter (323-square-foot) cell. They often play cards. Once a day, they are allowed to spend time in the courtyard of the prison, which is in Jinzhou, a city in Liaoning province in northeast China. The philosopher tries to stay fit by jogging and sometimes playing badminton. He reads in his cell, and is currently reading a book by the Japanese author Haruki Murakami.

His wife comes to visit him once a month, bringing him new books and money so that he can buy cigarettes, cookies and salted eggs at the prison kiosk. Prison food is bad, and meat is rarely served. Their visits are strictly limited to one hour, and the clock starts running the second he sits down.

Liu Xiaobo, 54, a literary critic and philosopher, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last Friday. He had no idea that he had even been nominated -- news of a political nature is taboo in the Jinzhou prison.

Under House Arrest

Liu hasn't received a visit from an attorney in a long time. His conversations with his wife are recorded on camera and monitored by two guards, who immediately interrupt them the minute the conversation strays away from personal and everyday matters. But then the authorities finally offered Liu's wife, Liu Xia, the opportunity to visit her husband and tell him about the prize. She saw it as a maneuver to keep her away from the media in Beijing.

Liu Xia was allowed to meet her husband on Sunday but is apparently now under house arrest, according to media reports. She is not allowed to contact the media or her friends. During her visit to the prison, Liu Xiaobo apparently told her that he was dedicating the prize to the victims of the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing's Tiananmen Square and was moved to tears.

Liu is the first Chinese to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Many have been considered for the award in the past, including the young activist Hu Jia, who is also in prison, the attorney Gao Zhisheng, who disappeared after being tortured and imprisoned, and the dissident Wei Jingsheng, who lives in exile in the United States. But no other dissident has kept up his opposition to the Communist Party regime for so long or has been so severely punished as Liu, whose goal was to help make China a democratic country -- one that treats its citizens with decency and that finally faces up to its politically violent past.

Growing Self-Confidence

This is why the awarding of the prize to Liu is such an incredible provocation for Beijing's rulers, just as it was in 1989 when their nemesis, the Dalai Lama, was awarded the same prize in Oslo. Chinese officials have recently become more and more self-confident and demanding when appearing at conferences around the world. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen last December, they rebuffed the United States and Europe and rejected their ideas on fighting climate change. Beijing is also intimidating its Southeast Asian neighbors with its modernized navy and territorial claims in the South China Sea.

Thanks to their new cities, high-speed trains and trillions in foreign currency reserves, China's rulers now feel strong enough to ignore protests from abroad while developing a new style of dictatorship, complete with officials in Armani suits, many of whom have attended elite American universities and drive to work in Audis. But now the Nobel Committee in Oslo has sent Beijing a new signal, namely that the world is no longer willing to tolerate the Chinese Communist Party's ruthless treatment of anyone who demands more freedom and democracy in a country whose liberalized economic policy has been such a great success.

It was a courageous decision, especially after the Chinese Foreign Ministry had threatened that there would be consequences for relations between China and Norway if Liu were chosen. This sort of posturing has often been effective, especially among politicians and businesspeople who, anxious not to lose lucrative contracts, have a tendency to whitewash Beijing's treatment of dissidents with paeans to the "Chinese model."

Former Norwegian Prime Minister Thorbjoern Jagland, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said it wasn't the committee's job to take diplomatic considerations into account. "If we all become silent because of our own interests … then we are lowering the standards which have been set and accepted by the world community since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted," he said. The Nobel Committee intends to submit an official request to the Chinese government to allow Liu to attend the awards ceremony in Oslo in December.

Impressive Document

Even if the Chinese refuse to release their prisoner, the prize will give new momentum to many other civil rights activists, lawyers, journalists and environmentalists. The prize would cause "a groundswell of interest in Charter 08 and Liu's writings in China itself," wrote Nicholas Bequelin of the organization Human Rights Watch in an essay for Foreign Policy, referring to a manifesto co-authored by Liu Xiaobo.

Charter 08 is one of the world's most impressive documents of political resistance. The charter does not expressly call for the overthrow of the Communist Party, but rather "legislative democracy." Its authors demand "freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom in where to live, and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate, and to protest."

The Charter 08 authors charge that "the Chinese people have paid a gargantuan price" under the control of the Communist Party. "Tens of millions have lost their lives, and several generations have seen their freedom, their happiness, and their human dignity cruelly trampled."

The authors are not advocating revolution but cautious change. About 10,000 people have already signed the document, but only one of the authors, Liu Xiaobo, has been sent to prison. Most of the original 303 signatories were "invited to tea" by agents of the state security service -- the euphemism civil rights activists use to describe interrogations -- and warned against continuing to defy the party.


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