On 8 October 2010, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese ‘dissident’ who was found guilty by a Chinese court in 2009 of subversion in respect of his (non-violent) activities relating to Charter 08, a document calling for far-reaching political reforms, and sentenced to 11 years in jail. Worthy as he is of the prize, the problem is that, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu: “China has no dissidents… there is only the difference between criminals and those who are not criminals.”
No wonder the Chinese authorities are just a little exasperated by the fact that one of their ‘criminals’ has been internationally rewarded precisely for his supposed criminality. They see it as an encouragement to further criminal activity and as “Western anti-Chinese forces conspiring to subvert the Chinese government”. The irony is that Liu’s award may only serve to harden their resolve against him and to increase their resistance against further perceived western intrusion.
It would be easy to regard the reaction of the Chinese authorities as bordering on paranoia. Yet their fears become more understandable when we take a look at Charter 08, which reads like a classic text of liberal political theory. There is talk of the need to “embrace universal human values”, to guarantee fundamental human rights, freedom and equality, and to “join the mainstream of civilized nations”. Regardless of whether these reforms are desirable—the philosophical issue of the universality of human rights being a contentious one even outside China—it surely comes as no surprise that Liu and other Chinese supporters of Charter 08 are considered Western lackeys.
Ultimately I wonder whether Liu’s sacrifices, his time in jail, might count for more if he were to adopt a different approach, one that not only draws from the wellspring of Western discourses, but also and more importantly, remains embedded within a Chinese cultural and philosophical tradition.
It has been recently reported that Confucianism is making a spectacular comeback in China after decades of state repression. Instead of drafting charters of human rights, could Liu not, for example, advocate Confucian public duty or love? Would this not strike a chord with many more Chinese? If not, would it not be possible to reinvent such deep-seated values in a manner that would resonate with the times? Just as Gandhi’s activism relied on him being more British than the British and more Indian than the Indians, perhaps a more effective way to trigger the conscience of the Chinese people and government is to be more Chinese than the Chinese. This would, of course, require a difficult and even inspired leap in political imagination.
This is not to say that Liu’s numerous efforts to change Chinese society for the better are in any way ignoble. On the contrary, I very much sympathize with his cause and consider his incarceration an abomination. Nevertheless, sometimes the best way to show political support is to be constructively critical rather than to award prizes.