What does Liu Xiaobo’s awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize mean for China?

Posted: October 8th, 2010 | Tags: , , , | No Comments »

The Nobel Committee in Oslo today awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波). Previous winners from Asia have included Burma political activist Aung San Suu Kyi and South Korea president Kim Dae-jung.

Liu was favourite to receive the award ever since an Irish bookmaker began paying out on him days before the announcement. The human rights activist has served two out of an 11-year prison sentence for co-authoring Charter 08, a petition that called for sweeping political reform. When Liu’s odds-on status emerged, the Chinese government began applying pressure on the Nobel organisation by accusing it of hypocrisy. Awarding the prize to Liu would contravene Alfred Nobel’s founding principles, it argued. But as time ticked down towards the announcement, the government’s tone became aggressive. It warned Norway that their thriving relationship would be threatened if Liu won the prize.

Now that Liu has won the Peace Prize, what does that mean for China? The starting point would be to look at why he won it. The Nobel Committee said: “For over two decades, Liu Xiaobo has been a strong spokesman for the application of fundamental human rights also in China.” China’s appalling human rights record has been in the shadow for the past few years – around the time markets worldwide were rocked by recession. The importance of China to the global economy means criticism of its human rights has dampened as leaders seek to tap into the huge market.

At the same time, China has become emboldened by its growing clout. A foreign policy best characterised as a charm offensive has been replaced with an increasingly assertive, downright bullish stance on delicate matters. Its indignation at Norway and the Nobel Committee is the latest in a series of swipes at fairly innocuous parties. In the past year, it has clashed with the Melbourne Film Festival and the Frankfurt Book Fair, hardly the type of existential threats that China conjures up to stir nationalism.

The Nobel Committee’s award sends two clear messages to China. The first is its current propensity to bully nations into submission is not going to fly. China claims its rise is benevolent and for the ultimate benefit of the world. Its jingoistic actions have spoken otherwise. The second is that human rights are still on the agenda. As long as abuses like Liu Xiaobo’s detainment continue, no amount of economic growth will make anyone believe China’s claim to be a civilised power.

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