China’s Nobel?

I initially did, and perhaps still do, have some misgivings about last week’s announcement awarding this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo “for his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”

While recent laureates have encouraged a broader way of thinking about peace (Mohammed Yunus, Wangari Maathai), and the prize has a tendency to go to people and institutions operating in the top tiers of diplomacy (Jimmy Carter, the IAEA), I think the real added value comes in highlighting people who might not otherwise have their name flashed around the world: Shirin Ebadi (2003), Jose Ramos-Horta and Carlos Belo (1996), Aung San Suu Kyi (1991) and so on. Liu falls very much into this category.

But I wondered whether it might do more harm than good, given the Chinese hypersensitivity to percieved meddling into domestic affairs, of which human rights issues comes near the top of the list. Like the Olympics, the Nobels are probably taken very seriously – an international status symbol demonstrating China’s rise to the top table, but equally important as legitimacy trophy for a domestic audience. And like criticism of the Olympics, this Nobel award intrudes rather inconveniently into those hopes for both audiences. The experience of embarassment of this sort – one could even call it humiliation – isn’t insignificant. The hopes of those within international human rights circles will be that external pressure is meaningful in cajoling change in China. Or it may lead to greater stubbornness and resistance, justified as a nationalistic refusal to cave into Western interference in China’s domestic affairs. To put it in more general terms, will positive or negative reciprocity be at work here?

Liu isn’t just any old dissident, too. The document with which he is associated, Charter 08, is notable especially for its proclamation of human rights as ‘universal’ values – the language of values being a key vehicle through which Chinese discourse with the wider world is conducted. Navigating through this terrain is a crucial part of China’s future in international society – becoming part of the West, or articulating a different, non-Western conception of international order that abstains from intrusive claims upon domestic conduct? Or as IR theorists would put it: does the growing significance of the non-Western powers make the future pluralist or solidarist?

I think Timothy Garton Ash outlines this pretty well:

“The Nobel citation talks of “universal” human rights. Charter 08 talks of “universal values”. But Chinese leaders hear only “western” values, and the west’s post-imperial but still imperialist quest to impose them on China.

Over the next decade there are three approaches the old west can take in response: capitulation, Huntingtonism, or a real dialogue about universal values. Capitulation would mean bowing to Chinese blackmail, so that, for instance, western leaders would no longer receive the Dalai Lama. By Huntingtonism I mean the way Samuel Huntington envisaged us avoiding the “clash of civilisations”. This was to say, “all right, you do it your way over there and we’ll do it our way over here”. As China’s power grows, that is where we may end up. But it is definitely too soon to give up on the hope of reaching a deeper understanding of what are genuinely universal values, as opposed to merely western ones.

In this conversation we have to be prepared to listen, not merely to speak. We cannot act as if the west has found all the answers, for everyone, for ever – an assumption that looks more implausible by the minute. If, instead of closing up defensively like a hedgehog, China were prepared to engage confidently and even offensively in an argument about universal values, we should welcome that with open arms. The alternatives are more likely, but worse.”

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One thought on “China’s Nobel?

  1. Nick L says:

    From what I have read, Liu and Charter 08 have relatively little traction within China itself. The impression that I get from reading what observers within China have to say (judging on second hand info is always tricky) is that there are many currents of opposition and the elite liberal-democratic strand is only one, and perhaps not even the most important. The Chinese New Left adopts a very different perspective but is equally critical of the party-state. The Mass Group Incidents and various forms of popular protest amongst the rural and urban poor are probably more significant than either of those two elite movements in any case.

    As your post suggests, the Nobel issue is probably more relevant to China’s relationship with the international order than it is for its internal political dynamic.

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