There is little noble about this Nobel award
What a fate Liu Xiaobo has suffered: outrageously imprisoned by the Chinese and cynically exploited by Westerners keen to bash Beijing.
Friday was a good day for Western self-esteem. It was the day Chinese academic and activist Liu Xiaobo was to pick up his Nobel Peace Prize.
What made it such a good day to bestow honours on Eastern Others was that Liu couldn’t attend. Better still, the country in which he is currently incarcerated for sedition, China, refused to attend. To celebrate this absence of inferiors, the organisers of the prize-giving ceremony in Oslo insisted on keeping the chairs in which Liu and the Chinese government’s officials were to sit empty. It was an absence designed to speak far louder than words: look, we in the West are still China’s moral betters, it said, rather unsubtly.
Not that the Chinese government has been unaware of the incendiary nature of this rather dubious prize. Far from it. Since Liu’s triumph was revealed back in October, it has been waging a one-nation PR campaign against the Nobel Prize committee. So alongside branding Liu’s award an ‘anti-China farce’ organised by ‘a few clowns’, the Chinese foreign ministry had been busily persuading other nations not to attend the ceremony, with mixed results. Twenty of the 65 invited did not turn up, but only a handful did so in solidarity with China. Still, there was little doubt in the eyes of Chinese officials that giving Liu the award was always motivated by anti-China sentiment. Or as the Chinese government press agency Xinhua put it: ‘That’s why some people in the West immediately embraced the Nobel Committee’s decision, launching a new round of China-bashing.’
Admittedly the China-bashing this time round has lacked the openly vituperative edge that it had in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Then, aided and abetted by the proxy cause of Tibet, protesters, politicians and commentators vented considerable, venom-flecked spleen in China’s direction. China became everything that was wrong with modernity. It was messy, polluting and distinctly environmentally unfriendly. And worse still, its illiberal rulers were unrepentant.
Now though, the commentary seems ostensibly mellower, ostensibly conciliatory. I say ostensibly, because beneath the surface the same self-affirming logic that drives China-bashing is still at work. That is, while we in the West might no longer be certain of what we are for, through China we know what we are not. It’s a trick of context. Next to China, Western nations can appear righteously liberal. Incredibly, besides China’s political ‘weakness’, as the head of the Nobel Prize Committee, Thorbjoern Jagland, put it, even America’s foreign policy disasters become positives.
‘From invading Iraq to the setting up of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp’, writes columnist Peter Foster, ‘America has taken decisions that have drawn the world’s opprobrium, even hatred, in recent years. However, it hasn’t hesitated to justify or, if necessary, modify actions many have felt unconscionable.’ China, though, in response to criticism over Liu’s imprisonment, has acted like ‘a scolded child determined to spoil the party’. Fox News felt that China’s true colours had been revealed. ‘What’s the most important thing to know about Liu’s Nobel? It’s Beijing’s reaction.’ Boycotting the ceremony has proved one thing: ‘China is becoming a rogue state and showing the world that its one-party system has essentially remained unreformed after three decades of economic transformation.’
While the tone is frequently paternalistic, with China portrayed as immature and raw compared to its Western superiors, the substance remains desperately self-aggrandising. China’s behaviour is proof of Western nations’ moral superiority. Little wonder that too many commentaries have felt drawn to the historical analogy of choice for the morally bankrupt: ‘The Nazis tried to discredit a brave Nobel Peace Prize winner just as China is doing to Liu Xiaobo’, said a New York Daily News headline. If that is a little too explicit for many Sinophobic tastes, most commentaries are content to point out that the only other time the award’s recipient has been absent from the awards ceremony was in 1936, when Adolf Hitler prevented German journalist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky – who was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp – from claiming the award. While few go so far as to say that the Chinese are a bit, well, Nazi, the innuendo lingers.
What is rarely pointed out is that the Nobel Peace Prize is hardly a benchmark of the moral good. It doesn’t have even much to do with genuine peacemaking. Even the original Nazis flirted with it in 1939, when Adolf Hitler was nominated, together with his pacifist colleague Neville Chamberlain. In fact, the history of the Nobel Peace Prize is dominated, as Frank Furedi has pointed out before on spiked, more by realpolitik than actual virtue. Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, Mother Teresa and Al Gore have all won it, less by dint of any tendency towards peace and goodwill than the fact they met the needs of the moment.
What’s strange is that Liu, the man at the centre of the award, is largely lost amid the jeering of China. So despite the reams of print expounded on the wickedness of China’s Communist government, and their offensive habits at the high table of international relations, very little is really said about Liu himself. Yes, there’s the biographical stuff – a literary professor working in America returns to China during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, is subsequently in and out of prison and labour camps, before receiving an 11-year jail sentence on Christmas Day last year. This certainly furnishes us with the image of the brave little man raging against the evil totalitarian machine. But there’s something missing. And that’s the content of Liu’s conviction, the ends and aims for which he is struggling.
It’s as if Liu’s actual work simply doesn’t resonate. It’s as if he’s been awarded for his symbolic significance alone, a testament to the dark, illiberal heart of modern China. This is not entirely surprising. Take the piece which led to his imprisonment, Charter 08. Here is a work that is infused with a commitment to freedom, a work that insists on the sovereignty of the individual and espouses a commitment to self-governance.
‘Freedom is at the core of universal human values’, the document signed by Liu says. ‘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, among others, are the forms that freedom takes. Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilised ideals.’ And therein lies the problem: those using him as a stick with which to beat China do not actually believe in this undiluted, caveat-less notion of freedom. For each aspect of freedom, whether of the press, association or speech, authorities in the West always add a ‘but’, an exception. Our freedom is circumscribed. We are deemed either too vulnerable or gullible to be trusted with freedom of speech, and too potentially intrusive to be trusted with a free press. As for freedom in where to live, hardly anyone in the West argues for open borders. Freedom is just too watered down here for Liu’s work to have any purchase.
There’s plenty more where that came from. ‘We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes’, writes Liu in relation to the incitement laws under which he was eventually charged. He’s right – and not just in China. In the UK, for instance, words are increasingly treated as semi-magical weapons of harm, as if the mere utterance of something considered offensive – like a tweeted threat to blow up an airport – ought to be proscribed lest it cause anything from a racist attack to a terrorist outrage.
So, Liu’s work, his words, do deserve praise. And he, just like anyone else in China, most definitely should be free to express himself. He should be let out of prison immediately. But this Nobel Peace Prize doesn’t feel as though it’s got much to do with a deeply held love of freedom, despite the approving nods towards words like ‘democracy’. No, this is a shabby exercise in desperate Western self-affirmation. If governments in the West really felt strongly about freedom, they wouldn’t be trying to score points against the Chinese Communist Party; they’d be trying to do something substantive over here in the West, where freedom is also not highly valued today.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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