Was Liu Xiaobo the right choice for the Nobel Peace Prize?

This reporter columnist for the Guardian seems to think he’s not, and contends the choice may hinder the reform efforts of those in China who are more deserving of the prize.

But there are many unsung heroes – within the Communist party and “official” media, as well as among NGOs and the academy – who are working for incremental political reform, increased “public participation”, greater economic and social equality and negotiated compromise between competing interests in the complex and stratified society that is developing. These are China’s real peacemakers. They typically eschew the adversarial approach of activists like Liu – whose Charter 08 movement threw a gauntlet down to the authorities – not out of fear, but because they feel there are more constructive ways to achieve peaceful change in the Chinese social, cultural and political context.

The Nobel award will embolden those in China who are most inclined to confrontational tactics. It may well also prompt renewed state security surveillance of reform-minded academics and NGOs, which may, in turn, nudge some more of them over the line from pro-reform advocacy to outright dissidence.

Beyond doubt, though, it will strengthen the argument, within China, that the west is determined to derail China’s progress by promoting internal strife.

Like Hu Jia before him, Liu Xiaobo has done a masterful job of capturing the eye of the media. Despite the relatively small number of signatures on his Charter 08 petition, a day hasn’t gone by in the past year (when I started getting Google alerts for Charter 08) without at least one, and usually more, stories in the international press about it.

As for the complaint that the selection of Liu Xiaobo will only reinforce the CCP-cultivated mindset that the West is “against China,” all I can say is that shouldn’t be a consideration in the selection of the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Just about everything the West does confirms they are “anti-China” in the eyes of the Chinese, and once we let our sensitivity to this type of charge determine our actions you’ll know the West has totally sold out. I mean, should Aung San Suu Kyi not have received her Sakharov Freedom Award because it would turn Myanmar further against the West?

My personal feelings about the prize going to Liu Xiaobo: He’s a courageous man and he has to be credited with turning the spotlight on human rights and political reform in China. Was he the best choice for the prize? I’ll leave that up to you. What I will say is that I find articles like this to be irritating in that they follow the Shaun Rein model of treating China like a teenage boy and advocating that we tiptoe around any destruction the adolescent with raging hormones leaves in its wake. How low must we bow in order not to “hurt the feelings” of China?

Most irritating sentence in the article:

But it is hard to see what contribution he has made to peace, in China or beyond, or how this award will further peace.

Dude, it’s about awareness. What did Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa do that contributed to world peace? What they did was elevate the consciousness of millions around the world to injustices. While Liu may not have been my No. 1 pick for this honor, it should be clear why he was chosen: like him or not, he brought the need for political reform and human rights in China to the forefront of the global psyche. His selection may not have been the best, but it can easily be justified.

H/t to Danwei for the link.

Update: For a splendid piece on Liu Xiaobo and the Peace prize please go here. The journalist, Gady Epstein, first notes that there are many unknown dissidents languishing in the maze of China’s legal apparatus. Most of these activists who disappear are all but forgotten. Living in China, where authoritarianism is taken for granted, it’s easy for us to become “desensitized” to their plight. From there, Epstein arrives at a splendid conclusion:

This has been the unfortunate fate of most Chinese dissidents, to be remembered by only a few and known to very few of their own countrymen. Chinese writer Zha Jianying wrote movingly of this in a 2007 New Yorker article about her imprisoned dissident brother Zha Jianguo, posing the existential question of what good her brother’s sacrifice has done.

This Nobel Peace Prize helps answer that existential question. It has been awarded to one man, and his wife, Liu Xia, is rightfully proud of her husband. She will never have to worry that her husband will be forgotten, and she knows that many around the world and some within her country will learn what he stands for. But the award also confers a proud legacy to so many other Chinese dissidents who have been forgotten. More people around the world and inside China will know what they all stand for, and for a time will remember them and their cause a little better. That is one deeper meaning of this prize.

Who can say it any better? I hope the Guardian columnist finds time to read it.

Update 2: You must read Xujin Eberlein’s level-headed and insightful post on Liu’s winning the Peace Prize. One of the most idiotic memes running around among the fenqing is that Liu advocated China being “colonized” by the US. Of course, there’s no context for this remark, made nearly a quarter of a century ago. Xujun gives us the context and demolishes this nonsensical argument. Go read it now.


Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 69 Comments

The Chinese state response to the entire affair seems to have been organized by vindictive 5-year-old “little emperors” who were told that Liu took away their Happy Meals. Look at the “level” on which the government is operating (from the SCMP), truly “daguo waijiao” (great nation diplomacy):

Mo Shaoping said the keyholes of his apartment were believed to have been blocked by Beijing police twice on Monday and Tuesday night, forcing his family to move away for fear of continued harassment.

The central government expressed its anger by forcing a touring Norwegian musical play off the stage in Beijing and in Wuhan , Hubei province. Composer Thomas Stanghelle confirmed authorities had also cancelled performances of a musical scheduled for next month by Eurovision Song Contest winner, Norwegian Alexander Rybak.

What’s next? A wedgie or a swirlie for the Norwegian Ambassador?

October 14, 2010 @ 12:17 pm | Comment

It is quite amazing to what a degree the CCP has been able to paint the picture:
“It’s either our iron-fisted rule or civil war, hunger and chaos”. Of course anybody, Chinese or foreigner, may not believe in this strict dichotomy, but it’s better to err on the safe side. This is all the more astonishing since the most recent periods of civil war and famine in Chinese history are only 35-50 years ago, when the exact same party was in power and freedom of speech was nonexistent. One may even believe that Mao did all his heinous crimes just in order to secure the rule of his successors in all eternity.

I also want to leave the following: In 1991, it was not Russia that collapsed, it was the Soviet Union. The latter was never an organic state. If the Soviet Union was the means of the Russian communists (“the Bolsheviki”) to rule the non-Russian nations of the old Czarist Empire then that failed, and that was not the non-Russian’s fault. If the Estonians didn’t want to belong to Moscow any longer then that was that. It would be up to the Chinese to show the world that a multi-national peaceful democratic state can exist, along the lines of Switzerland or Finland (with its considerable Swedish minority).

October 14, 2010 @ 1:02 pm | Comment

I do not consider Xiaobo as a CIA agent. I believe most rational people would not think that way. Nevertheless, the fact that he is receiving NED stipend raise serious question on whether what he is doing is out of his own initiative or trying to please the NED people and secure next round of NED funding.

October 14, 2010 @ 1:28 pm | Comment

Well Fancieryu, you talk about “funding” and its benefits, but don’t consider the fact that his work clearly brought with it plenty of risks. The fact that he has spent the majority of the past two decades in prison on baseless charges suggests to me that money and luxury are not exactly his priorities.

October 14, 2010 @ 1:57 pm | Comment

Maybe I am biased because of my previous experience of some Mingyun people. I’d like to share my experience: I was in a resturant close to Princeton, NJ where some of Ming Yun people sit on the next table. I heard one guy was bragging that he will go to Turkey to promote Uigur independence. Other people asked “How come you are doing that?!” “I am paid to do so” was the answer.

Probably, and very likely, Xiaobo is better than that.

But some people do plan to try to get jailed by CCP gain prominence and to win favor from their sponsors. Wei Jingshe has always been using his 20 years’ incarceration to gain an uphand in his arguments? I do sympathize him and any people jailed for political reasons, but it’s also possible that people seek jail terms…

I have read Yang Jianli basically tried very hard to get jailed by CCP (by articles of his fellow Ming Yun’ers) by trying to sneak through border (but making enough noise to get detected).

Xiaobo did much smarter than Jianli and what he did anyway is applaudable. But I cannot be convinced that he is really doing it for purely selfless reasons.

October 14, 2010 @ 2:29 pm | Comment

@Richard: “If you want to smear Liu you’ll have to do better than that.”

Why do you accuse me of wanting to “smear” Liu?

smear verb [ trans. ]
• (figurative) damage the reputation of (someone) by false accusations; slander : “someone was trying to smear her by faking letters”.

How is it a “smear” to quote from Liu’s own writings? He wrote them. I make no false accusations; one cannot slander someone by stating truth. I quoted his essays, and stated my opinion as to how to characterize the views he expressed. How is that a smear?

I don’t want to “smear” Liu – I want to understand Liu. If you have references to other of his writings on peace (and war), please send me the links. I would be very interested in understanding his ideas on how to achieve peace.

Further, Liu may in fact stand behind the essays quoted here. Liu might very well identify himself as being in the same intellectual camp as leading British neoconservative Bernard Lewis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bernard_Lewis) or leading American neoconservative William (Bill) Kristol (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Kristol).

The Weekly Standard, edited by Bill Kristol, clearly supports Liu. See https://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/why-liu-matters_508818.html

“Neoconservatism is a foreign policy that emerged in the United States in the 1970s. It supports using economic and military power to bring liberalism, democracy, and human rights to other countries.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoconservatism) The sentiments expressed in his essays quoted are not inconsistent with this description.

If asked, Liu may in fact wear the label of “neoconservative” with pride. It appears that he truly believes in the unique American (and British) mission of preserving global freedom for all when he writes:

“The world is really glad for this, because the value of human freedom at the core of modern civilization mainly depends on the strength of Britain and America. Britain is the mother of modern civilization, the United States is a master of modern civilization. Freedom as represented by the Anglo-American system, with its benevolence and kindness to humanity in the 21st century, is the mainstream of human civilization.”

This sentiment is not so different from this statement of neoconservative principles:

“America has a vital role in maintaining peace and security in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. If we shirk our responsibilities, we invite challenges to our fundamental interests. The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire. The history of this century should have taught us to embrace the cause of American leadership.” (http://www.newamericancentury.org/statementofprinciples.htm)

October 20, 2010 @ 2:26 am | Comment

Congratulations to all the people (AKA trolls) whose Google searches for the words ‘Liu Xiaobo’ and ‘traitor’ have lead them to this page – it must have been pretty low in the rankings.

Congratulations also to the people who managed not to see that when a writer makes an outlandish claim like ‘China needs colonisation to modernise’ and defends it by quoting Marx, they may not be speaking entirely seriously – myopia as extreme as yours cannot be natural and must have been the result of years of training.

October 20, 2010 @ 4:19 am | Comment

FOARP, isn’t it something? They are trying very hard. The smear of Liu as a neoconservative takes the cake. Bill Kristoff endorses Liu’s winning the prize, Kristoff is a neo-con, thus Liu Xiaobo….

October 20, 2010 @ 11:12 am | Comment

Wow, there’s a lot of “Liu may in fact” this and “Liu might very well” that. Perhaps those statements may in fact/might very well amount to an attempt to smear.

“neo-conservatism” might very well have certain connotations. But I didn’t realize that a person who may in fact espouse such a view is disqualified as a worthy Nobel candidate. Evidently, neither did the Nobel committee.

October 20, 2010 @ 12:15 pm | Comment

@ Richard: “Perspective, just because he made the mistake of endorsing the Iraq war doesn’t invalidate him. Support for the war was widespread and even Hillary Clinton and other very capable, smart people were behind it – at first.”

Sure, lots of people “supported” the Iraq War. A lot of people were swayed by the false claims of WMD, that WMD posed an imminent danger that had to be eliminated. In the U.S., many were swayed by Judy Miller’s reporting in the New York Times: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judith_Miller_(journalist).

However, the kind of support these people gave was often contingent on matters such as (a) letting the UN inspections continue or (b) waiting for the United Nations to authorize it. Unilateral action by the U.S. and the “Coalition of the Willing” has been criticized by many observers as an unlawful act. For example:

“The United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has told the BBC the US-led invasion of Iraq was an illegal act that contravened the UN charter. He said the decision to take action in Iraq should have been made by the Security Council, not unilaterally.”

Hillary Clinton made a long speech discussing her views (which also takes into account the views of her New York State constituents) in October 2002, and which goes into the dangers of taking a unilateral action and the kind of precedent this would set: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4wyCBF5CsCA

What is surprising to me, when I started to read his writings, is the extent to which Liu Xiaobo (1) supported the war enthusiastically; (2) derided the United Nations’ role; (3) had faith that the U.S. would succeed in bringing democracy to Iraq via toppling Saddam and (4) even after others had admitted the U.S. attack was mistake, continued to believe it was the right thing to do. The essays I cited above are evidence of that – read them for yourself and you decide.

So it is not his support of the Iraq War per se that is disturbing; it is his unqualified support of the attack and a kind of blind faith in the USA / England to use war as an instrument of freedom and democracy.

Why not advocate that the Iraqi people need to use non-violent means to work through their own issues to fight for their own freedom and to build the kind of democracy that is right for them? That, to me, would be consistent with a “non-violent approach” to social change that everyone seems to be claiming that LXB believes in. Are the Iraqi people unable to do this on their own? Is it that the Iraqi people need to have the assistance of the U.S. and England to remove their non-democratically elected leader (one who was empowered by the U.S. to begin with) that justifies this kind of attack (this is the neo-conservative claim of bringing democracy to the Middle East).

And what of the community of nations? What role should the rest of the world have in this process and the decision to remove the leadership of a sovereign nation and to launch a military invasion and occupation? If intervention is desirable, should the decision be made by one or a handful of militarily powerful nations?

Liu Xiaobo wrote that the United Nations is not worthy of respect because it is powerless to enforce its principles: “When the United Nations is unable to perform the duty of protecting fundamental human rights, its power and authority is not worthy of respect.” (当联合国无法履行保障基本人权的职责时,其权威就不值得尊重。) That is a pretty strong claim to make.

Contrast Liu Xiaobo’s views with another Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s views:
“In 2002 and 2003, Mandela criticised the foreign policy of the administration of U.S. president George W. Bush in a number of speeches. Criticising the lack of UN involvement in the decision to begin the War in Iraq, he said, “It is a tragedy, what is happening, what Bush is doing. But Bush is now undermining the United Nations.” Mandela stated he would support action against Iraq only if it is ordered by the UN…..
He urged the people of the U.S. to join massive protests against Bush and called on world leaders, especially those with vetoes in the UN Security Council, to oppose him. “What I am condemning is that one power, with a president who has no foresight, who cannot think properly, is now wanting to plunge the world into a holocaust.”
[I confirmed Mandela’s quotes in the wiki article against the original sources:
*****end quote*****

Martin Luther King Jr was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. The Presentation Speech for the award cited MLK’s views on war and peace:

“Today, now that mankind is in possession of the atom bomb, the time has come to lay our weapons and armaments aside and listen to the message Martin Luther King has given us through the unarmed struggle he has waged on behalf of his race. Luther King looks also beyond the frontiers of his own country. He says:

“More than ever before, my friends, men of all races and nations are today challenged to be neighborly… No longer can we afford the luxury of passing by on the other side. Such folly was once called moral failure; today it will lead to universal suicide…If we assume that mankind has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war and destruction. In our days of space vehicles and guided ballistic missiles, the choice is either nonviolence or nonexistence…”
*****end quote*****

Richard asked: “Was Liu Xiaobo the right choice for the Nobel Peace Prize?”

Well it’s hard for me to say – I have not read much of what he has written or had a real sense of what he has achieved – but based on what I have read so far, I’m scratching my head on this one.

I find his endorsement of “unilateral war by the US and England as an instrument to topple tyranny and bring freedom and democracy to people” troubling, and hard to accept coming from someone who has been raised up by Nobel Peace Prize committee as a model for the world.

I don’t believe the Nobel Prize Committee would have awarded him the prize without vetting his public writings, and so I assume that the award represents an implicit endorsement of his views (or at least, that holding such views is not a disqualifier). As I said, I find all this surprising and troubling as a model for the world to follow.

October 22, 2010 @ 5:01 am | Comment

Thank you for printing Perspective’s perspective. If his citations are accurate, clearly Liu Xiaobo was not a good choice for the Peace Prize. The contrast with other laureates is especially compelling.

October 24, 2010 @ 7:43 am | Comment

Everything perspective says is wrong. If Liu was pro-Iraq war that is not a disqualifier for the prize. He won the prize because he created Charter 08, fought for political reform and ended up in jail with a 12-year sentence. Let’s look at previous Nobel prize winners. Both Menachem Begun and Yasser Arafat committed acts of terrorism, yet both won the Peace prize. It was not about their pasts, it was about what they were doing then, namely the Camp David Accords, perceived to be an important step toward world peace. Literally everything perspective says is nonsense. It’s the same technique we’re seeing all over the web thanks to the 50-centers – attack Liu for obscure things he said years ago and forget all about why he was actually awarded the prize. This is a smear tactic, and luckily it’s not working. You’ll find an excellent summary of these anti-Liu tactics spelled out over here. Pure, utter, total nonsense.

October 25, 2010 @ 1:48 am | Comment

It’s the same old thing. Don’t address what he wrote that actually won him the prize; address all the stuff he wrote before that DIDN’T win him the prize.

If anything, the Nobel committee has already done exactly what they guys are purportedly clamouring for: don’t award him for his prior Iraq war opinions. Which they haven’t…because they didn’t give him the prize in 2003, or 2004, or whenever. They gave him the prize now, after something he wrote more recently which was deemed more worthy. But of course, that’s not what these guys want to talk about.

In fact, I’d wonder about the percentage of comments doing the usual drive-by character assassination of Liu which actually make mention of his Charter. My guess is that it’s a pretty small percentage…in accordance with standard operating procedure.

October 25, 2010 @ 3:11 am | Comment


October 25, 2010 @ 3:52 am | Comment

I’ve already written earlier that I think the ideas expressed in the Charter include many that are not appropriate for China now or in the near future, and that awarding the Peace Prize is a form of meddling in Chinese internal affairs that most nations would not appreciate. It is clearly an example of the West trying to tell China how to run its own affairs, and has very little to do with Peace. The fact that Liu is an unrepentant Neocon only compounds the error.

October 25, 2010 @ 7:24 am | Comment

Whatever. Keep smearing.

October 25, 2010 @ 9:15 am | Comment

Good grief, here we go again. “west” = Nobel committee. Perhaps they should just rename the Nobel.

Whether the Charter is “appropriate” for China or not is certainly a judgment call. Wataru is certainly entitled to his opinion. Should Chinese people be entitled to having their opinion?

“meddling” is part of the same old tune as well. It wasn’t long ago that there was consternation about how a Chinese person in China hadn’t ever won a Nobel. Now that’s changed, but because the winner is not on-side with the CCP, the hand-wringing continues. Maybe giving Hu Jintao next year’s prize before the leadership turn-over will make it all better: Chinese person in China, check; in favour with the CCP, check. Problem solved.

The fact that Liu might possibly be this/that or the other has quite probably been taken into consideration by the committee, since they probably have google in Norway. And that “fact” appears to have been given the weight they felt it deserved, since they gave him the award anyway. For those who don’t like how the Nobel committee does things, it’s high time to take up a collection, establish your own endowment, and create your own award that would more closely represent your priorities.

October 25, 2010 @ 12:20 pm | Comment

What’s amazing is the way that Liu’s critics segue directly from “Liu Xiaobo doesn’t deserve the prize” to “Liu Xiaobo deserves to be in jail”. Barry Sautman goes about as far as any of Liu’s major critics have by saying that, in his opinion, Liu’s imprisonment was unnecessary, and that all unnecessary imprisonment is unjust. For most of the rest, one rather suspects that the sentiment posted by Charles Liu, and which Charles Liu has subsequently continued to say he sees nothing wrong with, is the one which most accurately reflects their true opinion:

” . . . Let us not indulge them [ie., the drafters of Charter 08] again, we must sweep away these enemies as the autumn wind sweeps away the leaves! A righteous reckoning at the people’s guillotine is the best solution for them!”

That is, Liu critics do not actually care whether he deserved the prize or not, or whether his imprisonment is just or not, they merely see him as an enemy to be destroyed. Arguing with them is pointless, the best thing that one can hope for is that their obvious untruths (Liu is a US agent, Liu is motivated by money, Liu is a traitor) can be dispelled.

In the meantime, I am under no illusions about Liu. I believe that he is sincere in his support of Chinese democracy, and that Charter 08 is a genuine proposal for reform in China (its likelihood of success being non-zero, but not high). This does not mean that I endorse each and every one of his opinions, nor does it mean that the Nobel prize committee are endorsing every one of his opinions. In fact, the Committee was very clear about what the award was for:

“The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2010 to Liu Xiaobo for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China. The Norwegian Nobel Committee has long believed that there is a close connection between human rights and peace. Such rights are a prerequisite for the “fraternity between nations” of which Alfred Nobel wrote in his will…. The campaign to establish universal human rights also in China is being waged by many Chinese, both in China itself and abroad. Through the severe punishment meted out to him, Liu has become the foremost symbol of this wide-ranging struggle for human rights in China.”

That is, this award was not an endorsement of any of Liu’s views except those regarding human rights, and Liu’s qualification is based at least partly on the severity of the punishment he suffered for his advocacy of human rights. This is hardly an exception to the rule, this is the rule.

Take Nelson Mandela as our example: a man who plotted terrorist attacks, who received support from the Soviet Union – including training in paramilitary tactics. Was the 1993 Nobel Prize an endorsement of this? Absolutely not. The 1993 Nobel Prize was an endorsement of his non-violent negotiations with De Klerk which brought the end of Apartheid in 1994.

As another example, take the awarding of the 1990 prize to Gorbachev – was this an endorsement of the occupation of Afghanistan which it took him four years to end? Was it an endorsement of the USSR’s immense nuclear arsenal and army? Once again, the answer is no.

Even if the accusations against Liu were true this would not render him ineligible for the prize. Fortunately they are a collection of smears and lie from people committed to supporting whatever China’s dictatorial government says or does, willing puppets of a regime that cares nothing for them or their opinions. I would suggest that anyone attempting to judge how much weight should be given to the opinions of these fenqing should follow the example of the CCP they so love and give their opinions no weight whatsoever.

October 25, 2010 @ 8:29 pm | Comment

Well FOARP, that is a very logical assessment of the situation. But as you well know, logic has never been a prerequisite nor a concern for some of these “critics”, so I guess we should not be surprised when they demonstrate an utter inability to grasp it.

Many of the things that these “critics” say are cause for derisive laughter, and as you know, the commentator you quoted is one of my all-time favourites. But for him to use “us” and “we” when speaking of Chinese people would easily make it onto the Chuckles Top Ten List.

October 26, 2010 @ 2:30 am | Comment

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.