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Liu Xiaobo and China's future

The Beijing elite’s vehement reaction to an imprisoned dissident’s Nobel award is a sign of its political vulnerability, says Kerry Brown.

The award of the Nobel prize for peace to the imprisoned Chinese rights activist Liu Xiaobo on 7 October 2010 is a moment rich in significance for all involved. For the dissident movement in China, it gives its cause a lease of life. For those western governments that have been saying less and less about specific human-rights cases in China, it offers an occasion to reflect on the justness if this course. For the Chinese government, most predictably of all, it presents the chance for another angry burst of rhetoric (and an accompanying clampdown on other critical voices).

Yet Beijing’s quaint denunciation of the award as politically motivated is also in its way confirmation of the reality that the prize is indeed political to its core. After all, its recipients have included (apart from genuinely worthy figures) a serving United States president, former terrorists, and (perhaps most galling of all) Henry Kissinger. But that is precisely what makes Liu Xiaobo a particularly appropriate winner.

Many have commented in the days since the award that Liu Xiaobo is far from well known in China, and that his victory will never be significant there. This is irrelevant as well as untrue. The key “targets” of his prize are the members of the central committee of the Communist Party of China (CCP), and especially those who sit on its politburo. This elite certainly knows who Liu is - largely because its authority would have been required to send him to jail for eleven years in December 2009. 

Out of control

Now, China’s top leaders are forced to respond to this latest piece of western effrontery. The details of their discussions may not be known for a long time, if ever. But when they next convene around the tables of the Zhongnanhai (the central government compound in Beijing) to review their policy of harmonious social development and peaceful Confucian rise, there is bound to be embarrassment that a prize once deeply coveted by the Chinese government is going to a Chinese national in prison in China. It is even more painful than the Nobel literature award to Gao Xinjiang, who was by that time exiled in France.

This is not the way the ultra-controlling Chinese political elite wants things to happen. So when the bad news came, it and the power-sources it commands (including the media) was unable to react in an astute and (perhaps, from  its perspective) effective way: by adopting an attitude of lofty disdain towards this insignificant piece of frippery by an ignorant west. Instead it raised the decibels for the entire world to hear.

The elite, by showing how much it cared about Liu Xiaobo’s award, thus granted the Nobel committee an even greater success. The latter, by exposing in raw form  one of the rare current vulnerabilities of some of the most arrogantly powerful people on the planet, can be well pleased with its work here.

Again, this is indeed a political rather than a cultural issue. The Nobel peace prize should aim to irritate repressive and unpleasant elites - whether in Africa, Asia, the Americas, or Europe. The Chinese say they will set up their own prize to recognise international efforts, perhaps naming it after Zhou Enlai. They could then borrow from Europe and award it to individuals who might be irritating to power groups in the west. This would be very welcome.

In the mirror

More broadly, a definite outcome of Liu Xiaobo’s peace prize is that it might mean fewer high-minded lectures from the CCP’s  “learning orientated leadership” about the party’s moral as well as economic prowess.  The experience of seeing powerful and ruthless politicians adopt the dress and tone of gentleman scholars or solicitous uncles is already hard enough to stomach; a shift from this humbug and evasion towards realism would be beneficial all round. 

China’s leaders have in their stewardship of the economy over the last three decades demonstrated that they are competent in this area – perhaps to a level of greatness that no one can deny and which deserves to be celebrated. But the extra dimension so often attributed to them - of being significant figures in cultural, intellectual, and even spiritual terms - is a ludicrous fantasy. In this sense, this Nobel peace prize performs a function equivalent to that of the best political satire in the west, by showing China’s communist elite in its true perspective.

Hu Jintao and his colleagues will continue to swim in a sea of serene self-righteousness in the image they seek to present to the world. But amongst the endless self-referential harmony of contemporary official China, this rude interjection will antagonise and unsettle the very people most in need of it.

Perhaps then at their next Zhongnanhai meeting the members of the politburo can begin to reflect on the comic absurdity that they oversee the world’s second largest economy, the world’s largest holder of foreign reserves, the world’s largest exporter - yet rule a country whose sole internationally recognised laureate is incarcerated for exercising his freedom of speech. And, with all this in mind, to take their own adage seriously: “seek truth from facts”.

About the author

Kerry Brown is professor of Chinese studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King's College, London, associate fellow at Chatham House, and lead member of the Europe China Research and Advice Network. He was formerly director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. His latest book is China's CEO: The Rise of Xi Jinping (IB Tauris, 2016).

His previous books include Carnival China: China in the Era of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping (Imperial College Press, 2014); (as editor) EU-China Relationship: European Perspectives (Imperial College Press / World Scientific, 2015); (as editor-in-chief) Berkshire Dictionary of Chinese Biography (Berkshire, 2014-15); Contemporary China (Palgrave, 2nd edition, June 2015); Friends and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of China (Anthem Press, 2009); Ballot Box China: Grassroots Democracy in the Final Major One-Party State (Zed Books, 2011); and Hu Jintao: China's Silent Ruler (World Scientific, 2012). Kerry Brown's website is here

More On

Kerry Brown is an associate fellow on the Asia programme, Chatham House. He is the author of Struggling Giant: China in the 21st Century (Anthem Press, 2007), The Rise of the Dragon: Inward and Outward Investment in China in the Reform Period 1978-2007 (Woodhead, 2008), and Friends and Enemies: The Past, Present and Future of the Communist Party of China (Anthem Press, 2009). His website is here

Also by Kerry Brown in openDemocracy:

"China in 2009: a year for surprise" (14 January 2009)

"China's giant struggle" (5 February 2009)

"China's coming struggle for power" (14 May 2009)

"China's Tiananmen moment: the party rules" (3 June 2009)

"Xinjiang: China's high-security alert" (14 July 2009)

"China's shadow sector: power in pieces" (17 September 2009)

"Chimerica: Obama visits Beijing" (27 October 2010)

"North Korea's fate, Chimerica's test" (7 December 2009) - with Jiyoung Song

"China and Liu Xiaobo: the weakness of strength" (11 January 2010)

"Gao Zhisheng and China's question" (3 February 2010)

"China: inside strain, outside spleen" (25 March 2010)

"China and America: the uses of vulnerability" (8 June 2010)

"China's next elite: 2012 and beyond" (16 August 2010) - with Loh Su-hsing

"China and Tony Blair: the wealth circuit" (15 September 2010)

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