China politics: Prize-winning tantrum


Over the past month the Chinese government has launched a high-profile campaign criticising the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident, Liu Xiaobo. In a sign of China’s growing diplomatic influence, several countries were persuaded not to attend the prize-giving ceremony in Norway. But the government’s strong reaction also gave the event more publicity than if China had just remained silent on the matter. Moreover, China’s shrill tone in the run-up to the ceremony has added to concerns about the country’s long-term intentions.

In late 2009 Mr Liu was handed an 11-year prison sentence for “subverting state power” after writing a political manifesto, called Charter 08, which advocated political reforms in China. However, Mr Liu has a long history of upsetting the Chinese authorities. He played a prominent role in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations that were bloodily repressed on June 4th 1989.

Mr Liu’s harsh sentence discouraged hopes that the Chinese government will embark on a programme of political reform. There have also been more positive indications; in a speech in Shenzhen in August, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said that China’s further modernisation and development could not be achieved without political reform. Indeed, it is possible that China’s strong stance against Mr Liu’s nomination has been partly driven by domestic factions keen to make the subject of political reform unmentionable.

Public relations disaster

Despite China’s vehement protests, the award ceremony went ahead on December 11th, with the non-attendance of Mr Liu (or of a relative able to collect the prize on his behalf) symbolised by an empty chair. The last time a Peace Prize recipient or a relative was unable to accept the award was in 1935, when Hitler forbade Carl von Ossietzky, a German pacifist, from attending the ceremony. In this light, China’s decision not to allow Mr Liu to attend the prize-giving is a disaster for the Chinese government’s public-relations efforts. By preventing the laureate from accepting his prize, China is in the company of some of the twentieth century’s most brutal regimes—Stalin’s Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Poland under martial law and military-ruled Myanmar.

In China, awareness of Mr Liu’s name remains hazy. The state-controlled press has heavily censored foreign coverage of Mr Liu’s prize while painting him as a “traitor” when domestic coverage has proven unavoidable. Meanwhile, China’s use of non-diplomatic language—the foreign ministry described the Norwegian Nobel committee as “clowns” engaged in a “farce”—is unlikely to have proved persuasive abroad. Indeed, it was the response in China, which included the hasty setting up of a rival “Confucius Peace Prize” by a shadowy committee of businessmen, which seemed to sink to the level of farce. The recipient of the prize was a former Taiwan premier and vice-president, Lien Chan, whom China has praised for fostering links with the mainland. Mr Chan was apparently unaware of his award and failed to turn up to receive it.

China’s growing influence

In an attempt to discredit the Nobel ceremony and to discourage other countries from attending, China used both official and unofficial diplomatic channels to issue sinister-sounding but vague warnings of “consequences” for countries choosing to attend the award ceremony in Oslo. In a sign of China’s growing international clout, some 16 of the countries invited to attend the ceremony refused the invitation (the Chinese government returned its own invitation unopened). These countries are all heavily dependent on trade and investment with China (such as Sudan, Sri Lanka and Iraq), or have problems with political dissidents of their own (Egypt, Russia and Vietnam). The number of countries would have been higher had Serbia—under strong pressure from both the EU and US—not been persuaded to attend the ceremony at the last minute.

Although the Nobel committee is a non-governmental organisation, its decision to award the prize to Mr Liu could have consequences for its host country, Norway. When the decision to award the prize to Mr Liu was announced in October, the Chinese government wasted no time in cancelling a long-scheduled meeting with a Norwegian fisheries minister, Lisbeth Berg-Hansen, who was in Shanghai to discuss trade in seafood between the two countries. However, the long-term consequences for the Norwegians are less clear. China denounced the French government for the latter’s criticism of the suppression of ethnic unrest in Tibet in March 2008, threatening that France’s commercial relationship with China would suffer as a result. Yet the two countries signed trade and investment deals worth US$20bn in November 2010.

A rising dragon

In the 1980s and 1990s, China adopted a policy of disclaiming global ambitions and seeking to avoid challenging the US and other Western powers. That policy now seems to have been superseded by a more pugnacious approach to foreign affairs. The Nobel Prize controversy comes after a series of incidents in the past year or so that have heralded a more assertive Chinese approach to foreign relations. The past few months have seen a bitter territorial row with Japan, diplomatic tiffs with ASEAN, and a steady deterioration in the tone of relations with the US. As China’s neighbours grow increasingly fearful about the country’s newly aggressive foreign policy, China’s strident reaction to Mr Liu’s peace prize will only heighten their concerns.