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October 8, 2010 11:23 pm
With its decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has reinserted itself into the best traditions of the award.
In its greatest moments, the peace prize has given heart to and roused support for individuals struggling against the overwhelming force of an oppressive state or an unjust social order: Carl von Ossietzky, Andrei Sakharov, Lech Walesa, and Aung San Suu Kyi in the former case; Martin Luther King in the latter.
Mr Liu deserves to be in their company. He has fought peacefully for decades to win for his fellow Chinese the basic right to think what they want, say what they think, and criticise the party apparatchiks that wield power over them. He participated in the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations where many protesters were murdered by the government’s crackdown. He is a founding signatory of Charter 08, a manifesto calling for greater civil rights, modelled on Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77.
For his role in the Charter, Mr Liu is languishing in a Chinese jail on a conviction for inciting subversion of the state. He has done no such thing: his activities have aimed not at overthrowing the state but of making it serve its people by granting the rights that – as the prize citation usefully points out – China’s own constitution formally guarantees.
What happens next will depend on Communist party rulers now smarting with embarrassment. They had made a prize for Mr Liu more, not less, likely, by clamping down so hard on him. In the mould of other authoritarian regimes, Beijing put pressure on Oslo not to give him the prize, betraying the insecurity behind the facade of strength. If China now snarls at the outside world – or worse, punishes other dissidents – it will set back a long way the respectable global image it so craves.
China’s progress on that front reflects its undeniable economic achievements. But it has just as much to do with an obsessive control of media coverage and with foreign leaders’ preference to ignore the country’s human rights abuses as they curry favour with Beijing. Thanks to the prize, western capitals may now find this a little more awkward.
Mr Liu’s Nobel is a recognition that peace is only secure when conflicts, between countries or within them, are resolved within a system where the rule of law protects everyone’s freedom. That is a truth of which rulers everywhere need always to be reminded.
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