A spiky man in a prison cell, 500km northeast of Beijing, is tacitly pummelling the once seemingly invincible Chinese Communist Party. Liu Xiaobo, (pronounced leo she-ow-bwah) literary critic, dissident and Nobel laureate, thrown in prison in 2009 for subversion and his involvement in the drafting of Charter 08 (a manifesto for political reform that calls for democratization of China) is at the centre of China’s biggest political embarrassment since Tiananmen.
The ignominy that played out at Oslo, Norway and the uncontainable Chinese fury at the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo showed an unflattering image of China as nation that arm-twists countries, heavily dependent on it for trade and aid, to boycott the ceremony. Moreover, by ratcheting its propaganda machinery, China further tried to discredit the award that has inadvertently anointed Liu Xiaobo as the new leader of the Chinese dissident movement.
However, to China, the vehemence is not without reason. Every year, the Chinese hope that one of their authors; scientists or economists win a Nobel Prize that will be a reflection of a developed China. Liu Xiaobo’s nomination is a huge snub to those ambitions. By awarding a dissenter, the Nobel Committee has deemed China’s recent achievements unworthy, rebuked China’s leadership, and the country’s judicial system. All this comes at a time when China is growing increasingly intolerant to the mounting dissent at home and the rising global apprehension over China’s muscle diplomacy that has come with its new found economic power. The Chinese believe, more so now, that the Nobel Peace Prize is a huge ideological conspiracy by the Western powers to undermine its success story and to counter its growing influence on the world stage.
China’s response against the award is a newly established and hastily arranged ‘Confucius Peace Prize’. The prize awarded to Lien Chan, a Taiwanese politician backfired magnificently as the recipient was not at hand to accept the award and the Chinese had to arrange for a six-year-old girl as a stand-in. The futile riposte to the Nobel Committee and the aggressive Chinese rhetoric against the Nobel Peace Prize has culminated into China’s biggest public relations disaster in recent times.
By disallowing Liu Xiaobo or his wife to attend the ceremony and not sending any representative to collect the award, China equated itself with other regimes that have imposed such a condition in the past. The infamous list includes Nazi Germany, the old Soviet Union, Poland (under martial law) and Burma. The comparisons with Nazi Germany that resonated across the world owing to China’s growing military aggression have severely damaged China’s image. The empty chair at the ceremony represented a hostile and arrogant China, a view that fits perfectly in the Western world.
For a nation that is anxiously craving for global recognition as a responsible superpower, China’s misadventure with the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee and the understated yet symbolic eloquence of the empty chair will prove to be as damaging as the tanks at Tiananmen Square.