Nobel Peace Prize: China’s Threats Backfire

Beijing is a growing power, but blocking news of jailed rights activist Liu Xiaobo’s Peace Prize projects weakness—and warning that the honor would be seen as “an unfriendly act” may have helped him win.

The colorful Chinese expression “killing a chicken to scare the monkeys,” which means to warn a large group by harshly punishing one, has been Chinese government policy in recent years, especially in the case of Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to more than a decade in prison last December for his human-rights advocacy.

On Friday, Beijing’s “killing chickens” strategy failed when Liu won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Chinese government has tried to block word of the award from state-run media and the Web, but look for the news to quickly jump the “great firewall” on China’s Internet and reach many of the nearly 400 million Chinese online.

Liu is serving an 11-year sentence for “incitement to subvert state power,” a charge the Chinese government uses to silence critics. Liu’s “crime,” as a key figure in the release of the Charter 08 manifesto was chiefly to demand greater respect for human rights in China. Modeled on the famous Charter 77 signed by Vaclav Havel that helped undermine the Soviet Union’s iron rule in Czechoslovakia, Charter 08 makes the apparently radical claim that “freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind.”

China is seen as a growing power in the world. Yet Beijing’s reaction to Liu’s Nobel Prize is not that of a confident and stable government. Instead, top Chinese officials warned Norway and the Nobel Committee itself not to honor Liu. China’s deputy foreign minister said awarding the Peace Prize to Liu “would pull the wrong strings in relations between Norway and China” and be seen as an “unfriendly act.” In no small irony, it is likely that those threats helped tip the Nobel scales in Liu’s favor.

The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize puts China’s human rights record squarely back in the spotlight.

Liu is a 54-year-old former professor of literature at Beijing Normal University who has long been a relentless advocate for reform and the rule of law in China. He was jailed for 21 months after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and branded a “Black Hand” for his support of students seeking peaceful reform. In 1996, he was sentenced to another three years of “re-education through labor” as a result of further human-rights activism.

After Charter 08 was released on December 10, 2008, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Chinese government wasted no time harassing and detaining many of the 303 Chinese signers of this document—rights defenders, lawyers, and academics, but also ordinary Chinese citizens. An instant viral hit on the Internet in China, the charter quickly gained thousands of signatures before government censors blocked access to it.

Liu’s modest writings and reform efforts pose a danger to the government, as he represents a growing community of people inside China who are convinced the country must reform in order to progress. In the years since 1989, the most important trend has been the rise of a generation of committed civil-society leaders: journalists, artists, lawyers, women’s rights activists, religious freedom advocates, and a diverse set of people who organize through the Internet.

Much attention has focused on how the Nobel news is playing outside China. But for Chinese leaders, the biggest challenge is surely how it will play inside. China’s government is not monolithic. Reformers vie endlessly with hard-liners on Politburo policy and the best way to govern China’s vast territory and 1.2 billion people. But since the period leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, hard-liners and security forces have had the upper hand. As a consequence, much of the last decade’s progress has been set back, with those on the front lines of reform in China paying the highest price.

The Chinese government made an example of Liu with a harsh prison sentence, aiming to sideline his activities but also to send the message that public pressure for reform is not welcome. Indeed, Liu is one of many leading human-rights activists who have been harassed, detained, beaten, forced out of their jobs, and jailed in recent years. However, no degree of censorship will prevent countless ordinary Chinese people, government employees, party cadres, and students from wanting to know more about who Liu Xiaobo is, why he was sentenced to prison, and what is so dangerous about Charter 08. They are probably going to discover the modest manifesto, which could spread uncontrollably.

The implications for China’s rulers are also interesting. Perhaps within the Chinese leadership there will even be an accounting of how counterproductive jailing Liu and dozens of rights advocates has been. Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, said, “As the [Nobel] Committee recognized, China’s new status in the world comes with increased responsibility. China should embrace this responsibility, have pride in his selection, and release him from prison.”

60-Second Guide to the Nobel Lit WinnerThe 2010 Nobel Peace Prize puts China’s human-rights record squarely back in the spotlight. Best of all, it tells those in China who struggle every day to make their government more accountable that their fight matters.

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As director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch, Minky Worden works with journalists to help them cover crises, wars, human-rights abuses, and political developments. She also has worked in Hong Kong and at the Department of Justice as a speechwriter for the U.S. attorney general and in the Executive Office for U.S. Attorneys. She is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Overseas Press Club's Board of Governors, and editor of China's Great Leap and co-editor of Torture.