Last year’s Nobel Peace Prize awarded to U.S. President Barack Obama was an embarrassment to all concerned. Given Obama’s slight record of accomplishments up to 2009, it was an award based on name recognition and hope rather than any evidence of achievement. The same cannot be said of this year’s winner, Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo. While he may not be a household name in the West, Liu has earned this award through decades of thoughtful commitment to peaceful dissent. The prickly reaction of the Chinese government merely adds to the importance of the award.
China recently became the world’s second-largest economy. This rapid growth, and the dramatic reduction of poverty it has entailed, is nothing short of a miracle. But despite all this economic advancement, the country’s achingly slow progress on human rights cannot be overlooked. It is now clear that development alone will not inevitably lead to democracy in China. The regime’s authoritarian impulses are too strong. There must also be a catalyst.
Liu, an academic by training, first rose to prominence as a peaceful negotiator during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989. Since then he has been in and out of Chinese prisons for his advocacy of democracy and freedom. He is currently serving an 11-year sentence for “inciting subversion of state power” by co-authoring “Charter 08,” an online document from 2008 that plainly argues in favour of basic human rights for Chinese citizens.
Predictably, news of Liu’s award has been scrubbed from websites and popular media within China. One of the few mentions in print was carried by the government-owned China Daily newspaper, in which a columnist called the award “a provocation” and “a Western plot to contain a rising China.” Liu’s wife has been prevented from meeting with diplomats from Europe and her phone has been cut off. To put some teeth to an earlier threat that recognition of Liu would harm relations between Norway and China, this week China cancelled a scheduled meeting with the Norwegian fisheries minister. (Unlike the Nobel Prizes for medicine, chemistry, literature and so on, which are awarded by the Swedish-based Nobel Foundation, the Peace Prize is handed out by a committee of five former members of the Norwegian parliament.)
The official Chinese position is that 54-year-old Liu is a convicted criminal, and that his advocacy with respect to internal politics is incompatible with the notion of world peace.
However, the Nobel Peace Prize has a long tradition of recognizing non-violent dissidents held against their will—from German peace activist Carl von Ossietzky in 1935 to Myanmar politician Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991. Since world peace is greatly furthered by the spread of basic human rights in all countries, Liu’s award is entirely justified by this standard.
And his work could hardly be considered criminal by international standards. Consider “Charter 08,” which precipitated his current incarceration. In it Liu provides a simple list of fundamental concepts that ought to be available to all people, including freedom of speech and assembly.
“Where freedom does not flourish, there is no modern civilization to speak of,” it says. Other items on the list of necessities include the right to equality, democracy, a functional constitution and judicial independence. A Western reader would take all as given.
In fact, much of this is already included in Chinese law. Article 35 of the Chinese constitution says “citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration.” The fact Liu remains in prison—for simply demanding the protections Chinese citizens allegedly already possess—marks the current constitution as meaningless. The international community has a responsibility to remind China of its obligations to human rights.
Liu adopts a broad historical view in his writing. A 2005 essay titled “Dictatorial Patriotism” ranged back as far as the Qin dynasty of 200 BCE in observing that China as a nation has survived a wide range of rulers, regimes and indignities throughout the centuries. From this perspective, the Communist Party of China becomes just one more totalitarian regime among many. “Throughout Chinese history, regimes were frequently replaced, but China as a nation was never destroyed,” he writes. And yet his suggestion that China can survive without the Communist party at its head is about as radical as Liu ever gets. Despite repeated imprisonments and official persecution, there’s no hint of violence in his advocacy. Given the importance of China to world affairs today, the entire world has a stake in encouraging China’s peaceful transition to a modern, functional democracy.
This bold Nobel Peace Prize decision properly makes Liu Xiaobo the pre-eminent symbol for human rights in China. That Prime Minister Stephen Harper has already called for his release shows the significance of this award. Liu should be free. Along with 1.3 billion other Chinese citizens.