The award of the Nobel Peace Prize on October 8, 2010, to the imprisoned Chinese political dissident Liu Xiaobo, the co- author of Charter 08, a pro-democracy manifesto signed by more than 300 prominent Chinese scholars, writers, and activists and published online on Dec. 10, 2008--the 60th anniversary of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights-- could be counter-productive.
The Charter, emulating Charter 77 issued by dissidents in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia, calls for the implementation of the guarantees of China’s Constitution and for institutions in China upholding democratic reforms, human rights, and the rule of law. It warns of national disaster in the absence of political change and makes 19 recommendations to improve human rights in China, including the establishment of an independent judiciary, freedom of association and an end to one-party rule.
Instead of embarrassing the Chinese political leadership, the award has made it defiant as could be seen from the writings in the Chinese media condemning the award, which is seen as politically motivated. The Communist Party-controlled Global Times wrote in an editorial on October 9:
"The controversy in the West over Liu Xiaobo's sentence is not based on legal concerns. They are trying to impose Western values on China. Obviously, the Nobel Peace Prize this year is meant to irritate China, but it will not succeed. On the contrary, the committee disgraced itself. The award however makes it clearer that it is difficult for China to win applause from the West during China's development, and China needs to be more determined and confident in choosing its own development path, which is different from Western approach. The Nobel committee made an unwise choice, but it and the political force it represents cannot dictate China's future growth. China's success story speaks louder than the Nobel Peace Prize."
The award is also seen as another attempt to humiliate China similar to the attempt made before the Beijing Olympics of August, 2008, to organise a boycott of the opening ceremony of the Games as a mark of Western disapproval of alleged human rights violations in China. The boycott move failed partly because the then US President George Bush was opposed to any boycott which could be seen as a Western-inspired humiliation of China and partly because the indignant Chinese people called for a boycott of Western goods and Western departmental stores in China.
In an article, the same issue of the Global Times quotes Shi Yinhong, a Professor in the School of International Studies at the Renmin University of China, as saying as follows:
"The Nobel committee claims to be independent, but its decision to award the peace prize to Liu strategically caters to anti-China forces. The decision is aimed at humiliating China. Such a decision will not only draw the ire of the Chinese public, but also damage the reputation of the prize. "
The award is badly timed because it has come in the midst of a debate in China on the need for political re-structuring as a follow-up to the economic re-structuring which the country has undergone with great benefit since Deng Xiao-ping opened up the Chinese economy in 1978. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao has been in the forefront of this debate and has been increasingly articulate in calling for greater transparency in governance and greater freedom of speech which would allow constructive criticism of the way China is governed. Advocates of political re-structuring have been pointing out that ultimately the economic re-structuring would have to be followed up by political re-structuring at an opportune time when the political opening-up would not lead to political and economic instability.
The confidence gained by the political leadership as a result of the successful handling of the economic crisis, which had led to the closure of a large number of export industries and consequent loss of millions of jobs, has encouraged the debate on the need for taking up the task of political re-structuring envisaged by Deng himself. An article carried by the Global Times on August 23 pointed out:
"Wen's remarks about political reform (at Shenzhen) came 30 years after the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping first raised the issue during an important speech on August 18, 1980, which was regarded as "the programmatic document for China's political restructuring."
Thus, the current debate on the need for political reforms is seen as nothing but the beginning of the implementation of a promise made by Deng himself in 1980. When Wen and others speak of the need for political reforms, they do not mean the winding-up of the one-party rule as fondly hoped for by human rights activists in the West, but the identification and eradication of the negative aspects of the one-party rule. When Wen talks of the need for freedom of speech , he means freedom to constructively criticise Government policies and working instead of having to implicitly support them. How to have public accountability under a one-party rule? That is one of the questions being posed during this debate.
It would have been in the interest of the West to let this debate develop and result in a genuine re-structuring of the political set-up in China. Instead, by giving the award to a dissident who has only limited following inside China and calling for political reforms, the Nobel Committee and those supporting its award would only strengthen the hands of those who are opposing any political restructuring of the Chinese set-up.
The Chinese leadership and people are fearful of any instability which could wipe out the considerable economic gains made by the country since 1978. The decision of the Nobel Committee to honour the dissident at a time of transition in China from economic to political re-structuring could rekindle fears of an externally-inspired attempt to destabilise the country. The ultimate losers will be the advocates of political re-structuring.
B. Raman is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai