Pushing China further away – giving the Nobel to regime change

By way of introduction, let me affirm that of course Liu Xiaobo should not be in prison for peacefully publishing his opinions on China’s system of government. He has a long history of conducting a non-violent personal fight against the Party leadership, the last time I met him was on Tiananmen. He has also guest-lectured here in Aarhus

That said, my immediate reaction to the news of the Nobel Committee’s decision was that it was a wrong one. Not because it is at odds with the intentions of Alfred Nobel, which aimed at supporting peace among nations. Nor because its effects have been the opposite of this, namely “erecting walls among nations” in the words of one Chinese editorial. Not even because it continues the odd trend of last year’s award, of giving it based on the hope that the recipient will make some kind of difference in the future.

The main problems with the award are three.

 First of all, Liu is an elite phenomenon, fairly unknown in China, so outspoken that he has made many enemies, and with neither the will nor the ability to lead the work of improving rights conditions at the popular level. He is personally very courageous, runs close to the brink, but knows exactly the risks he takes. The problem is that he runs alone, a vanguard with no connection to the main group of average Chinese. That  also makes it easy to incarcerate him. 

Secondly, as a lecturer in literature, whose formative years were in the 1980’s -when the West was still the Best in China – he has chosen to advocate a Western style multi-party system for China today. This has no doubt increased the interest of the Committee, and the sympathy for his intentions in the West. But it has had exactly the opposite effect in China, where he is easily associated with ‘outside powers’ , and can be tarred with a brush as old as the Opium Wars. This task is made easier by the fact that he has received quite a lot of money from the United States. His efforts to transplant an ‘alien’ system are also regarded with some disdain by those social scientists and think tanks in China working to develop ideas and plans which are tailored to Chinese reality, and hopefully in the progress towards democracy will take account of the deficiencies of our systems, particularly the trends towards plutocracy, the rule of money. Charter 08 does not connect much with China’s present problems, has not offered a realistic cure for the everyday rights problems of ordinary Chinese. And it has predictably increased repression of critics of the system.

Thirdly, there is quite a lot of bitterness in China at continually being lectured to and regarded as somehow morally inferior. One Chinese friend joked that China ought to have the Nobel Prize in Economics for bringing 400 million people out of poverty in the space of 20 years. Perhaps professor of economics Zhu Rongji could fetch it. The Committee does briefly credit this, but the main effect of the prize this year is to say: ‘We still hold a monopoly on civilization and progress, we know what is good for you’. Over the last 4-5 years the Chinese have reached a point where they are fed up with this preaching, particularly from representatives of a West struggling with its own severe problems. After that point it has the opposite effect, of strengthening support for the regime, of increasing  nationalism and the distance between them and us which comes with being treated as an inferior.

What could the Committee have done, if they wanted to draw attention to China’s undoubted human rights problems (even though Alfred Nobel did not care a hoot about human rights)? Instead of promoting Liu’s “one-size-fits-all” solution, they could have looked into the many organizations and NGO’s which work using the system and its legislation against the system. Some are documented in the recent book by Gert Holmgaard Nielsen: “Balancegang”. Whether protecting workers, AIDS victims, victims of one-child-policy abuses, peasants cheated out of their land, etc etc, they are producing results, they need the money and publicity, and an award to one of them would not be as divisive, nor would it be seen by the leadership as support for owerthrowing the regime. It would also be a way of giving the prize which harked back to the award to Martti Ahtisaari three years ago: given for decades of hard work, a proven record, and results that have made a difference. The future task for the Nobel Committee is to reestablish its credibility and influence among particularly developing countries.


Clemens Stubbe Østergaard,
Associate Professor,
Department of Political Science,
University of Aarhus