08 October 2010

Nobel politics and Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo. Photograph: Liu Xia.

I have posted here several time about Liu Xiaobo, currently imprisoned by the Chinese regime for his political activities. Today he has won the Nobel Peace Prize. You can find reports here and here. I think this is a very worthy choice.

There has been a relatively high visibility campaign on Liu's behalf over the past year. Most notably, a group of prominent political figures circulated this statement, with another group following with this letter, publicly urging the Nobel committee to award the prize to Liu. The campaign has itself reportedly prompted an extremely negative response from the Chinese government. And it generated conflict among Chinese dissidents, with some endorsing the candidacy with others opposing it. With all due respect, I think the opponents are shortsighted. What is at issue here is not Liu's personality - whether he is flawless, a saint rather than a political actor - but the extension of democratic principles in the face not just of authoritarian politics but of market forces as well. On this point I recommend this essay by Chinese novelist Ma Jian. And disagreement is just what those principles countenance. In a sense the Nobel committee has created some political space. To the extent that the Chinese people are able to get the news it, of course, offers them encouragement. But the prize can and should be seen not just as holding the Chinese government to account but also, and importantly, as placing pressure on "our" democratic governments to endorse their own principles by speaking out on the prize. It will be interesting to see if any intrepid Western leaders take advantage of the opportunity the committee has afforded them! Any leader who speaks out would not just potentially jeopardize relations with an important trading partner, but open whomever speaks out to scrutiny of their own political practices. I am not holding my breath. Are you?

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