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The Nobel Crackdown

Published in: Foreign Policy

On Dec. 10, for the first time since 1936, when Nazi Germany prevented Carl von Ossietzky from traveling to Norway to receive his Nobel Peace Prize, neither the laureate nor any of his family members will be able to attend the Nobel ceremony in Oslo.

Liu Xiaobo, this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, is serving an 11-year sentence in a prison in northeastern China, after being convicted one year ago of "inciting subversion to state power." His wife, Liu Xia, is forcibly confined at home in Beijing by the police, and prevented from talking publicly under threat of losing her right to visit Liu. All the principal signatories and co-drafters of Charter 08 -- the manifesto calling for bottom-up political reforms that prompted Liu's arrest in December 2008 -- are under tight police surveillance, prevented from assembling, giving interviews to the media, or traveling abroad.

In selecting Liu in the face of pressure from Beijing, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has laid bare the Chinese government's overt hostility to human rights norms, at home and abroad. Since the prize was awarded in early October, the Chinese Communist Party has embarked on a sweeping crackdown on dissidents. Scores of Chinese citizens have been detained, placed under house arrested, or prevented from travelling to the ceremony in Oslo. But the prize and the ensuing clampdown may turn out to have profound consequences for how the world views China, and China's own ability to pursue its foreign-policy objectives.

In the days that followed the announcement of the prize, Liu Xia managed to circulate a letter expressing her desire to see Liu's friends and supporters attend the ceremony in Oslo; her letter included a list of more than a hundred names: Chinese writers, lawyers, academics, journalists, former party cadres, artists, and NGO activists, many with a distinguished record of patiently and peacefully challenging the limits of the one-party system. But after the letter became public, Chinese authorities informed each of those living in China that they would not be permitted to go. Some have been placed under police monitoring or confined at their homes with a retinue of police officers camping outside their doors. Countless other rights activists across the country have been harassed, summoned for questioning, or detained by the Public Security Bureau or state security officers. (The advocacy group China Human Rights Defender has compiled a helpful list of cases.)

Several prominent figures known for their outspoken views, including world-renowned artist Ai Weiwei, the top legal scholar He Weifang, China's famous criminal lawyer Mo Shaoping, and 80-year old economist Mao Yushi, have been banned from traveling ahead of the ceremony on the rationale advanced by border-security officials that such trips would "jeopardize national security."

The Chinese government has multiple motives for imposing such a radical clampdown. It wants to minimize the significance and legitimacy of the prize, especially in the eyes of Chinese citizens living abroad and therefore immune to the government's massive domestic censorship effort. It wants to prevent signatories of Charter 08 from speaking to a global audience in Oslo, and to deny Chinese domestic rights activists a platform where they could speak with authority about the country's dismal human rights record. Equally importantly, it wants to facilitate the government's propaganda effort at fanning nationalist sentiment through the portrayal of the prize as a conspiracy by "the West" designed to hobble China's rise in the world. Although there have been many voices inside China supporting the decision of the Nobel Committee, the government's pervasive Internet censorship has effectively airbrushed them from domestic cyberspace.

In reality, this unprecedented clampdown is unlikely to help Beijing's damage-control efforts. On Dec. 10, global public opinion will likely be aghast as a wider audience learns that the laureate's wife has now become a virtual prisoner in her own home. The reputation of China's legal system will take another nosedive as it becomes apparent that the government discarded all legal pretense in putting activists under effective house arrest, while calling Liu a "criminal." And the Nobel Committee's decision to honor a Chinese human rights advocate will appear all the more justified precisely because of the anti-human rights response from Beijing.

Even more problematic for Beijing is the Nobel Committee's decision not to formally award the prize at the ceremony on Dec. 10 because no one in Liu Xiaobo's family will be allowed to receive it. (Only one of the Chinese activists close to Liu, AIDS activist Wan Yanhai, will be present in Oslo on Friday.)

Admittedly, China's rulers might be ready to withstand the inevitable international blowback. After all, the regime withstood such opprobrium following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize that year to the Dalai Lama.

But the ham-fisted response to the Nobel crisis has dramatically undermined Beijing's post-Tiananmen efforts to rehabilitate its image. Language unbecoming of a world power used to characterize the Nobel Committee members ("little clowns," in the words of Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu) has only made Beijing's predicament worse. Beijing's attempt to threaten European Union members through official diplomatic channels not to send their ambassadors to the Nobel ceremony has also ruffled feathers. This move has raised the stakes for EU countries -- to stay away would be understood as bowing to naked pressure -- and has turned what was routine attendance into a symbolic rebuke of Chinese interference. Although Beijing has insisted that a "vast majority" of countries would not attend the ceremony, so far only 18 have declined, including Cuba, Iran, and Russia.

Beijing may even further embarrass itself if the Chinese Embassy in Oslo goes ahead with its current plan to organize Chinese students to stage a counterdemonstration outside the ceremony venue. The irony of Chinese citizens legitimately exercising a right in Norway that the government denies them at home will not be lost on journalists and other observers.

Keeping a Nobel laureate in prison also has both immediate and long-term implications for China's diplomacy.

First, it becomes harder for China's interlocutors to sweep aside human rights in bilateral or multilateral relations. Democratic governments the world over will find themselves under pressure from human rights groups to raise Liu's case as long as he is imprisoned. For years, the reaction of foreign diplomats asked to press Beijing on human rights has been to throw up their hands and claim that they didn't know what they could achieve -- but now they know one thing: gaining Liu's release. The pressure will also increase in international rights forums, where direct criticism of China has become weaker and weaker. It will be difficult, for instance, for the U.N. high commissioner on human rights, Navanethem Pillay, who has declined to attend the Nobel ceremony in Oslo, to avoid mentioning Liu when she gives her address on International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10 without appearing to have bowed to Chinese pressure.

Second, the situation may well create a host of awkward interactions when Chinese leaders travel abroad. Hu Jintao's refusal to hold the customary press conference at the end of his visit to France last month seems to illustrate the Chinese president's fear of being asked embarrassing questions about the imprisoned Nobel laureate.

Third, having become the only country in world with a Nobel Peace Prize laureate currently in prison will hobble China's quest for soft power -- which the Chinese government sees as a necessary attribute of a rising global hegemon. Neither the considerable expansion of the Chinese state media abroad nor the multiplication of Confucius institutes -- government-funded Chinese-language programs established within foreign academic institutions -- is likely to soften China's authoritarian image or make its political system appealing if it keeps Liu in prison for the next decade. Demands for his release are unlikely to decrease over the years, as Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest more than two decades after she received the Nobel Peace Prize demonstrates.

Liu's sentence is actually emblematic of the new dynamics of power within the Chinese leadership under the Hu-Wen team. In contrast to the reform era, which saw the struggle between "reformists" and "conservatives," the only debates within the leadership today seem to be about how to strengthen the existing system. The numbers speak for themselves.  The budget of the Public Security Ministry has increased 50 percent between 2008 and 2010, and according to figures from the Ministry of Finance, the overall budget allocated to "maintaining stability" is estimated to be equivalent to the entire budget of the armed forces. The recently leaked State Department cables from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing that attribute the attacks against Google as having been prompted by the displeasure of the head of the Propaganda Department at finding himself criticized online, if accurate, provide a striking illustration of the enormous power gains made by leaders of the security apparatus in recent years.

This is why the Nobel Committee should be commended. In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, it has directed a powerful spotlight onto the hard reality of the single-party state in China and forced Beijing to reveal publicly how intolerant of dissent and how hostile to human rights norms and the free flow of information it remains. Although the Chinese government will do its utmost to cast the ceremony on Dec. 10 as a Western attempt to impose its values on China, the reality is that China's rulers are deeply afraid of the increasingly assertive demands of their own people for what underpins real stability: the rule of law, the free flow of information, and respect for fundamental human rights.

Nicholas Bequelin is a senior researcher in the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch.

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