Friday, October 22, 2010

Does Liu Xiaobo's Nobel Prize Matter?

In the wake of Liu Xiabo's Nobel Peace Prize, Chinese officials have been furious.  Some have openly wondered, with good cause, if the prize does more harm than good to Xiaobo and his allies.  It certainly has increased pressure on his network of activist friends and colleagues.  Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that Xiaobo and his awarding of the nobel prize are relevant in China today.

Soon after his prize, a prominent group of communist party elders, somewhat protected by retirement, have written an open letter, distributed by email and on the blogs of, calling for freedom of speech in China.  The letter, described in a recent TIME article, is clearly in solidarity with Xiaobo and shares many themes in common with his Charter 08.

It would be naive to say that Xiaobo has brought these ideas into Chinese political discourse, but he is forcing them into the spotlight.  The letter notes that many of the basic freedoms of speech are in fact guaranteed by the country's constitution, but are denied by a government censorship apparatus with little accountability.  The letter references with indignation the fact that the censors have even blocked domestic publication of the Premier Wen Jiabao's words abroad when they call for more reform than those responsible for censorship are comfortable with.

A Chinese-born American friend points out how the transfer of Hong Kong to China, with its inherited status from the end of British colonialism, has been pushing this conversation deeper into Chinese consciousness.  Indeed, the letter above notes that even under British occupation, Hong Kong enjoyed greater press freedom than the Chinese censors allow their their own people.

This energy, of course, is not to be overstated.  Much of the country, especially in rural areas without much access to international media, are unlikely to be discussing Xiaobo's importance in the political discourse.  They, in fact, may be completely unaware of the June 1989 Beijing protest, uprising and massacre that propelled Xiaobo into infamy (in the government's eyes). 

Even in center of Chinese internationalism, there is a widespread nationalist sentiment that is indignant about how the international media covers this prize.  While the growth of the Chinese economy has lifted countless millions out of poverty (among other things), many urban youth and professionals find the focus on contentious weeks in 1989 or limits of press freedom to miss the point.  In this way the argument by the Chinese government that the prize awarded to Xiaobo represents an "Anti-China" sentiment resonates with popular Chinese frustration, pride or insecurity about its accomplishments and their perception abroad.

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