Pakistan is one of 18 countries which decided to boycott the Nobel Prize ceremony in Norway this year. Officially, “various reasons” have been touted for staying away. But the real reason is best friend China’s anger over the decision to award its leading imprisoned dissident, Liu Xiaobo, the Nobel Peace Prize. China had ticked off attendees for showing “disrespect” for its policies.
Liu is hailed in the West as the “Nelson Mandela” of China. He was absent in the grand and majestic ceremony held in Oslo on December 10 where an empty chair with a huge picture of him in the background symbolically represented him. No trumpets were sounded to celebrate the moment when the first Chinese citizen was awarded the prestigious prize because Liu is serving an 11-year term in Jinzhou Prison in Liaoning Province. The resplendent and magnificent 19th century Oslo City Hall was packed with 1000 people and past and present laureates but there was an empty chair on the podium. There were two standing ovations for Liu to honour his 20 year-long cause.
Liu is the third dissident after South African archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi who have not been allowed by their countries to receive their peace prizes. In his case, even his wife and close relatives were stopped from traveling to Oslo to receive it on his behalf. One could recall that 75 years ago Hitler prevented the 1935 Nobel Prize winner, Count Carl von Ossietzky, imprisoned in a concentration camp, from attending the ceremony.
It is not the first time the world has heard the woes of the Chinese people and acknowledged their struggle against state repression. For two years running, 2007 and 2008, the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) awarded two Chinese journalists – Shi Tao and Li Changqing – with the prestigious Golden Pen of Freedom Award, confirming China as ‘the biggest prison for journalists’.
Liu, a professor, writer and political activist, though little known inside China, came into prominence when he participated in the 1989 famous protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square massacre. In this context, he has dedicated his peace prize to those “lost souls of June 4” in reference to the tragedy of Tiananmen Square which left a deep scar on him. That event, followed by 20 months of imprisonment, has changed his life and set a new path of a movement for democracy in China. In 1996, he was again sent away to re-education-through-labour camp for three years for his strong views and opposition to the one-party political system. His latest troubles are based on a document he co-authored with the title of “Charter 08” in December two years ago. It calls for a new constitution in China, an independent judiciary and freedom of expression – all taboos in the emerging superpower. His 11-year sentence in 2009 was for “subverting the country’s people’s democratic dictatorship and socialist system”.
Even though China’s reaction was anticipated by the world, its undiplomatic statements still came as a shock especially after it appreciated the latest release of Aung San Suu Kyi. China has warned Norway of tensions in the future and dubbed the five members of the Nobel award committee as “clowns”. China has also suspended its bilateral trade talks with Norway for an indefinite period. Pakistan calls China its “best friend” and is not prepared to alienate it at any cost.
China is a tough competitor in the race to become a new superpower. It is the world’s fastest-growing major economy with average annual growth rates of 10% for the past 30 years. It is also the largest exporter and second largest importer of goods in the world. The credit of lifting millions out of poverty goes to China which has done a miraculous job indeed. But the danger of having a social and economic crisis is high in the absence of even a modicum of civil rights. Article 41 of the Constitution gives its citizens the right to criticise, but anyone who has ever tried to exercise this right has been imprisoned. The Nobel Peace prize has so infuriated China that it has hit back by introducing its own “Confucius Peace Prize” in competition. In the China event, a bewildered young girl called “Angel of Peace” received it on behalf of Lien Chan, a former Taiwanese vice-president for his work in improving relations with China.
Liu has never been alone in his struggle. Media organisations like Reporters Without Borders (RWB) have waged a long campaign for his freedom. In its tribute to Liu the RWB wrote: “If China wants to refurbish its international image, it must free Liu Xiaobo, his wife and all its prisoners of conscience, and demonstrate a clear commitment to the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York based press freedom organisation which has honoured a couple of Pakistani journalists too, has ranked China as a media offender, at the top with Iran, where 34 journalists in each country are in prison at the moment. In China over 100 people were put under house arrest after the announcement of Liu’s prize. Information is a scarce commodity, the Nobel ceremony was censored; and text messages with key words like “Liu”, “Nobel prize”, “empty chair” and “Oslo” were blocked on the internet. President Obama, the winner of Nobel Peace Prize, 2009, has regretted that Liu and his wife were unable to attend the ceremony, and urged China to do more to advance democracy. But does China want to blithely ignore the world’s appeals and reaction over Liu’s imprisonment? The former USSR followed the same Gulag policies but could not sustain them without seriously hurting itself. Therefore, China should rethink its harsh attitude to dissenters. It cannot be a sustainable superpower without a healthy dose of democracy.