Mainstream Weekly

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2010 > Nobel Peace Prize to Lin Xiaobo: A Wake-up Call for Political Reforms in (...)

Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 43, October 16, 2010

Nobel Peace Prize to Lin Xiaobo: A Wake-up Call for Political Reforms in China

Tuesday 19 October 2010, by Rajaram Panda


The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize to the imprisoned Chinese dissident writer and activist, Liu Xiaobo. This Peace Prize is the first Nobel for the Chinese dissident community since the Chinese leader-ship introduced economic reforms but bereft of political reforms almost three decades ago. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu would trigger a debate inside China about whether and when China should begin democratic reforms. There are already symptoms of the people clamouring for greater freedom as their economic conditions improve and following exposure to Western liberal values. The authoritarian system which is in place simply does not allow that to happen and it does not appear that that would happen too soon either.

The news of the award drew an immediate response from Beijing. The Chinese Foreign Ministry described Liu as a “criminal who has been sentenced by Chinese judicial departments for violating Chinese law” and said that this award “runs completely counter to the principle of the prize and is also a blasphemy to the peace prize”. The Chinese Government has warned that giving the award to Liu will hurt bilateral relations between China and Norway, a threat that may ultimately prove to be counter-productive. The Chinese authorities also imposed a media blackout on the news from Oslo.

The Norwegian ambassador in Beijing was summoned by the Foreign Ministry, and he was told of China’s “disagreement and protest” over the Peace Prize. In Oslo too, China’s ambassador was asked to meet with Norway’s Foreign Ministry officials “to convey the same message”. Though Norway’s Foreign Minister, Jonas Gahr Stoere, took pains to explain to the Chinese authorities that the Novel Committee that picked Liu was independent of the Norwegian Govern-ment, Beijing seemed to remain unconvinced. Norway is negotiating a trade deal with China and, as one of the world’s biggest oil and gas exporters, is eager to boost its energy cooperation with the fast growing superpower.

As Norway launches its damage-control exercise, China is not feeling shy to flex its muscle. Its recent behaviour and statements regarding the disputed East and South China Sea have caused considerable disquiet in the Asian capitals. China does not seem to bother that in the process it runs risk of becoming a prisoner of its own aggression. It is widely noted across the world that China has breached several international agreements to which it is a signatory and thereby showed little respect to international norms and values. Article 35 of China’s Constitution lays down that “citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration”. The authoritarian leadership has no compunction to violate all these with impunity with the sole intention of retaining control over the affairs of the state.

There are internal unrests that worry the leadership more than the external threat, however wrongly perceived that may be. If aspirations of the people continue to be curtailed, sooner or later the people will begin to assert their rights and that is what worries the leadership. China sits on a veritable volcano and the foundation of the single-party structure will crumble unless the leadership introduces political reforms. China has emerged as an economic superpower, having taken over Japan as the world’s second largest economy. Its status as the world’s newest superpower received worldwide recognition after the successful 2008 Beijing Olympics. Even when the world was coming to terms with China’s handling of Tibet and Xinjiang issues, China tarnished its own image by successfully “de-friending” its own neighbours—Vietnam, Japan, Australia and South Korea. Indirectly, therefore, China facilitated to the increasing US presence in the region and thereby undermined its own strategy to spread its influence and control in the region.

US interests in the entire Asia-Pacific region are so huge that any adventurous act by Beijing is likely to evoke strong military response. In such a scenario, the US’ security alliances with Japan and South Korea will be further strengthened. When the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) lost power in Japan after four decades of almost uninterrupted rule to the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), China rejoiced as it perceived that the DPJ’s policy will be pro-China. But China undid this possible bonhomie with Japan when one of its fishing boats rammed into Japanese coast guard ships, exacerbating tensions between the two Asian nations. Though Japan released the offending Chinese captains following threatening noises made by Beijing in order to buy peace, the spat over the Senkaku-Daioyu islands burst out to the open.

Complicating the strategic situation in the Asian region, China stirred the coals under the South China Sea by claiming it as a “core” interest and made exclusive claims to the entire resource-rich Spartly Islands in the South China Sea. This led Vietnam, the Philippines, and Singapore, some of the countries which have contending claims to the island, to protest. Indirectly, China encouraged the entry of the US and Russia into East Asian politics, much to the annoyance of Beijing.

As has been the response to the Nobel Committee’s decision to award the Peace Prize to Liu, Beijing’s reactions have been aggressive, much to the discomfort of any civilised nation. In the process, Beijing does not realise that its efforts of achieving high economic growth for over three decades will come to a naught if it does not eschew its aggressive posture.


The award of the Peace Prize to Liu will definitely trigger the debate inside China whether it is time for a rethink on introducing political reforms. It is true that the dissident community in China is highly fractured, with a small group demanding reforms by violent means. In view of China’s military might, that is unlikely to succeed. Neither is that the desirable approach. But Liu has been an ardent advocate of peaceful, gradual political change, rather than violent confrontation with the government. A prolific critic and essayist, Liu has been in and out of jail since staging a hunger strike at the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. The document he co-authored, Charter 08, called for greater freedom and an end to the Communist Party’s political dominance. It was an intentional echo of Charter 77, the famous call for human rights in the then Czechoslovakia that led to the 1989 Velvet Revolution which swept away communist rule. Charter 08 says: “The democratisation of Chinese politics can be put off no longer.”

Thousands of Chinese signed Charter 08, and the Communist Party took the document as a direct challenge. Police arrested Liu hours before Charter 08 was due to be released in December 2008. After a brief trial on December 25, 2008, Liu was convicted of subversion for writing Charter 08 and other political tracts and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Soon Liu emerged as the foremost symbol of the wide-ranging struggle for human rights in China. The announcement of the award won support from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and others. Beijing is worried that the award to Liu will spark more dissident activities.

The announcement of the award came in the middle of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s tour of Europe, during which he has tried to cement ties offering trade and business concessions. But what has gone unnoticed was his praise for freedom of speech and people’s “irresistible” wish for democracy. In his first interview to the CNN since two years, Wen said: “I believe freedom of speech is indispensable for any country, a country in the course of development and a country that has become strong.” He further hinted that his views face some resistance in China. However, the kind of response that the Peace Prize to Liu evoked in Beijing suggests that China’s idea of political restructuring and democracy is not defined with the same sweep as the West. If Wen’s pro-reform comments were aimed to soften rising China’s image abroad and send the message to the citizens that the leadership was debating reform, these turned out to be a joke when the Beijing leadership showed its intolerance and abrasive behaviour to one of its own citizens asking for freedom and democracy in a non-violent manner.

Is Wen a minority who is risking his political career or his soft-pedalling is a way to molly-coddle the dissidents whose challenge the leadership dreads? In February 2010, Wen had aired his views on an online chat that democracy can help sustain governance. Again this year, Wen praised Hu Yaobang, an official booted out of the party in 1987 for his pro-reform stance. Further in August 2010, to mark the 30th year of reforms in Shenzhen, he said modernisation would fail unless economic and political restructuring went together. He also spoke of creating conditions that will allow people to criticise the failure of the government without any reprisals. When Wen’s views started appearing more in Chinese blogs than in official websites, people started debating if these were signs of a change in China’s political system. The reactions to the award of the Peace Prize to Liu showed that Wen’s views were mere will-o-the-wisp.

Beijing got a reason to bully Norway. Though there is a view which suggests that Western powers use literature and peace prizes for propaganda purposes, this does not legitimise the authoritarian Chinese official line on this issue. The Nobel Committee has a long tradition of honouring dissidents around the world. Liu shot into prominence in 1989 during the Tiananmen Square protests which the Chinese troops crushed with a heavy hand. Liu was jailed for 20 months. In 1995, Liu orchestrated several daring petitions to Parliament. This time, he was held for seven months. Then on September 30, 1996, Liu and veteran activist Wang Xizhe issued a statement urging the authorities to give people freedom of religion, press and speech, and the freedom to form parties. This demand led Liu to languish for three years in a labour camp. When in December 2008 he helped organise Charter 08 demanding sweeping political reforms, he was detained. In December 2009, he was sentenced to 11 years in jail for ‘inciting subversion of state power’.

In the Nobel’s history, there are some other dissidents who have been honoured with the Peace Prize. Among them are German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky in 1935, Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov in 1975, Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa in 1983, and Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991. Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for breach of an internal security law until November 13, 2010, six days after the country’s first election in two decades. The military junta dissolved Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) after it decided to boycott the elections. Sakharov was a nuclear physicist and campaigned for human rights. He was not allowed to leave the Soviet Union to collect the Prize. Iranian Shirin Ebadi, winner of the Peace Prize in 2003, was ill-treated by the Ahmadinejad regime. The Argentine rights campaigner, Adolfo Esquivel, was awarded the Prize in 1980 for raising awareness about the ‘dirty war’ carried out by the military rulers. Albert Lutuli won the Prize in 1960 for opposing the apartheid regime. Carl von Ossietzky, the anti-Nazi campaigner, was the first to be awarded the Prize while in jail in 1935.


Several previous Peace Laureates were unable to accept the Prize in person because of restrictions imposed by their governments, and they included Sakharov and Walesa. Liu’s wife has already said that she will go to Norway to collect the Prize if Liu could not. The kind of jubilation that the award evoked in Chinese streets pointed to the status of China’s dissident community. So far, Liu was almost unknown in China except among political activists but now he will be the rallying point for greater freedom, transparency and democracy.

When the Tibet-born spiritual leader, Dalai Lama, won the Peace Prize in 1989, both the Chinese Government and some of the public were angry. The exiled Buddhist leader was endlessly vilified in official propaganda as a traitor for his calls for more autonomy for Tibet. China continues to call Dalai Lama a “splittist”.

If China does indeed punish Norway, China-Norway bilateral relations would face considerable damage. Such a stance by China would be negative for its reputation in the world. China ought to weigh the costs and benefits of such actions, if it chooses to do so. The world respect for Liu has already increased, no matter what position China takes in the matter. China would be undoubtedly under greater pressure to review its policy of denying political freedom to its citizens. It is already sitting on a veritable volcano as social unrest has become a frequent occurrence there. If Beijing is serious to retain the economic dividend that it has achieved by its policy of market economy for distribution among its people, it is time that China stops its aggressive stance, both at home and abroad, and opts for pragmatism and makes the people stakeholders in the process of governance.

Dr Rajaram Panda is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.

He can be contacted at

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.