The media are abuzz today with stories on how China is trying to create an international boycott of the Nobel Prize awards in Oslo. Not surprisingly, it’s blocking Chinese activists who it believes may be leaving to attend the ceremonies, and it’s trying to strong-arm other countries from participating.
In addition to using its newfound economic might to warn world leaders away from the ceremony, China has waged an equally vociferous campaign at home to tarnish Mr. Liu’s reputation and delegitimize the award in the eyes of the Chinese people.
After a brief news blackout on the prize, the country’s state-controlled media began rolling out articles and editorials describing it as an insult to the country’s criminal justice system, a ploy to hold back China’s rise and a tactic to subvert the country’s political system. Other commentaries have painted Mr. Liu as a corrupt pawn of Western governments.
The warnings have already prompted a handful of European countries, among them France, Britain, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands, to announce they would hew to established protocol and send ambassadors.
Michael C. Davis, a law professor and human rights expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said he thought China’s effort to organize a boycott of the ceremony — like its earlier campaign to dissuade the Norwegian Committee from selecting Mr. Liu — would probably backfire. In fact, he said Beijing’s overall handling of the matter was only drawing more attention to Mr. Liu’s plight and to the country’s checkered human rights record. “The Chinese often unintentionally turn their enemies into heroes,” he said.
Of course, the lady doth protest too much, and professor Davis hits the nail on the head: China has a knack for turning those it would seek to vilify into heroes and martyrs.
The fact that China is such an insecure child that it can’t stomach the notion of leaders of other countries attending the Oslo ceremony speaks volumes. Liu has won the prize. The ceremony is going to take place. The news of Liu Xiaobo winning is now old news, and the ceremony itself is anticlimactic (the big news having been the announcement of the winners).
There was only one possible way for China to keep the eyes of the world riveted on Liu’s winning the prize and to perpetuate the notion, true or false, that China is still a prickly, paranoid state, and that was to keep throwing gasoline on what should have been by now a smoldering pile of ash. That’s exactly what China has done, stopping people from leaving the country and making veiled threats to other nations about participating in Oslo.
Congratulations, China. Through your grit and determination, you’ve guaranteed continual media coverage of Liu’s plight and managed to convince the world yet again that you’re not yet made of the stuff of a superpower. At least you’re predictable. From the stream of slanderous articles about Liu to the online chatter of his being a stooge for the NED to blocking the travel of activists to your threats to hold your breath until you turn blue if other countries participate – well, it’s all from the same playbook you’ve been using for years, and none of it comes unexpected. I really wish, however, that one day you might surprise us and show your cleverness. I mean, maybe you could manage your loss of face without going all apoplectic and hysterical, and inadvertently giving greater power to the party you see as your enemy while weakening your own agenda.
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.