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Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel: between idealism and realism

Malta Independent Saturday, 16 October 2010, 00:00 Last update: about 11 years ago

The Nobel Peace Prize 2010 is becoming a unique occasion for East-West discussions on understanding and misconceptions about freedom in the most populous country.

Officially the prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China“.

On the one hand Liu Xiaobo is admired for his relentless courage over decades. During the Tiananmen crisis, in 1989, while many dissidents fled the country or were silent, Liu continued to speak out despite warnings and arrests. This author first-hand knows how brave he had to be under those circumstances. Across the spectrum of Chinese intellectuals Liu is a respectable figure.

Nevertheless, so far in China Liu Xiaobo has not become an inspiring personality comparable to past winners of the Prize such as Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Willy Brandt, Mikhail Gorbachov or Kim Dae Jung. At international level Liu is not a founder or co-founder of a strong organisation of global reach comparable to Amnesty International, Medecins Sans Frontieres, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or the International Atomic Energy Agency.

However, at global level Liu’s Nobel has been saluted by some influential mass media somehow inaccurately, as if the prize went to a dissident from a former Soviet bloc country comparable, let’s say to Vaclav Havel or Andrei Sakharov, thus with potential to inspire significant change.

At the same time key influential Western decision-makers and politicians seem not aware of the extremely powerful forces that have been in motion in China silently serving the cause of freedom. Indeed, the country is following its own way unlike the former Soviet Union and Eastern bloc. Over the last generation declining state control of the Chinese economy has allowed average citizens unprecedented freedom in mobility, residence, employment, and consumer choices.

As we know even China’s tiny dissident community has benefited from this trend. One could argue that this award per se will neither lead the way into an era of expanded freedoms nor hasten the process of Chinese democracy. Civic and political rights in China are still far from our Western standards. But as already has been said, huge changes are taking place in the life and expectations of hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens thanks to the relative decline of the state control.

At the level of international relations, Nobel’s Peace Prize Committee chairman, Torbjorn Jaglund, has declared that “After the Second World War, the United States was the biggest power in the world, and we constantly debated what kind of United States we wanted, and many (people) criticised them all the time, which was an advantage for the United States. And when China is rising, and becoming a big power, we should have the right to criticise and ask what kind of China we want to have.” However, Jaglund refers to an ally in the context of the long and close Euro-Atlantic relationship and civilisation, so his remarks could be easily misinterpreted as ill-intentioned by Chinese authorities and aimed at interfering in China’s internal affairs. Let’s also remember that in school Chinese students are taught about China’s XIX century humiliations at the hands of foreign powers. Chinese media usually refers to the “diplomacy of human rights” as a tool used by the West to undermine China.

Within the context of potential understanding (and misunderstandings!), power also matters. Why should we expect Beijing to accept Western views about freedom now when we are weaker than in the times of Tiananmen, in 1989, when the West was stronger and strongly exerting pressure on the Chinese government on human rights obtaining few results?

In other words, translated to conditions in 2010, our legitimate concern about freedom in China should not interfere with possible solutions to face an unprecedented global economic crisis. Millions of people have lost their jobs in rich and poor countries, millions of families are suffering uncertainty. As a rising power of an unseen magnitude China depends on conditions worldwide and at the same time is a part of potential solutions to the economic crisis. There is a greater need today than ever before for coordination with Beijing. Let us use imaginative and new ways of dialogue on all pressing issues, including the acknowledgement of key universal values.

Augusto Soto is a China analyst and lecturer at the ESADE Business School in Barcelona and UN Global Expert

Source: Global Expert Finder (,

13 October 2010

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