The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to jailed Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo has become an international cause celebre, but it is also a sad paradox, a prize without any real winner which generates mistrust and perplexity when understanding and clarity are most needed.
On a highly sensitive issue, two axioms have to be reaffirmed. Given the level of interdependence which links China and the world, neither conflict nor isolation are acceptable options; our discourses and actions have to be subordinated to the ideal of complementarity, synergy and harmony. Many would like to see a radically different China before it fully integrates into the world system on Western terms, but one supports another historical course: A modernizing China will choose to be cooperative as a stakeholder of an upgraded global governance. What follows derives from these two postulates.
In a witty op-ed piece for The New York Times one year ago, Yoni Brenner played with a Norwegian word, "thorbjorn", a term he coined in a reference to the chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize committee Thorbjorn Jagland. Brenner aimed to capture with this neologism the combination of awkwardness, incredulity and embarrassment that followed the decision to honor US President Barack Obama after he was in the White House for only eight months. The verb "thorbjorning" has come to mean rewarding someone before he/she accomplishes what he/she set out do to. If one adds to the "thorbjorn" feeling a sense of regrettable inadequacy, one depicts the mood that dominates large segments of Chinese society after the 2010 announcement.
When, conscious of all the ambiguities surrounding his choice, Jagland repeatedly underlines his committee's right to speak, the words carved over the entrance of Uppsala, the prestigious Swedish University, come to mind: "To think freely is great, to think rightly is greater." Jagland's five-member committee had undeniably the right to speak out, but it simply made a self-defeating choice for, at least, five reasons.
First, the decision implies a distortion of China's reality, an irresponsible misrepresentation of the most significant story of our time, the Chinese renaissance. By awarding the prize to Liu Xiaobo as it did in the past to Carl von Ossietzky and Albert Lutuli the committee implicitly associates post-Mao China with the Nazi era and the South African apartheid. Such a fallacy discredits the venerable Norwegian institution.
Imagining a paralyzed Chinese society, the committee's logic envelops two invalid arguments. From a perceived unjust but particular dispute it infers a general arbitrary regime, and, presupposing without nuance that the only alternative to the Western liberal democracy - which can never generate injustice! - must be a totalitarian regime, the committee simultaneously categorizes and judges the world's most populous country. The committee has convinced itself that Liu is, within a static and Manichean representation, the symbol of the radical opposition between the good and evil, while his personal situation only illustrates the contradictions and vicissitudes of China's modernization.
Former Czech president Vaclav Havel and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, two moral authorities in their countries, explain that "this need not be a moment of insult for China" (Washington Post, Oct 22). But how does one characterize such a magnification of a particular case combined with such a contempt for what has been achieved by the Chinese people during the last three decades?
Second, the committee overlooks the constraints of economic development when it assumes that a developing country of 1.3 billion people with a per capita GDP of $3,700 can adopt en bloc the socio-political standards of the developed world without hindering its material progress. "Seeking the truth from the facts", it appears that it is a mix of reform, opening-up and State control which liberated China from the faceless tyranny of poverty. Freedom from want substantiates freedom of expression and not the other way around.
Hyper-affluent Norway (second highest per capita GDP in the world), populated by less than 5 million people who can rely on considerable natural resources in a relatively comfortable immediate geopolitical environment cannot be more different than the gigantic and developing Chinese society, but the committee should have been able to empathize with China's unique conditions and complexities. In addition, the history of the West demonstrates that, if political ideals are easy to formulate, their implementation requires time.