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Why China may have lost with its Nobel Peace Prize boycott

2010 December 10
by Paul Vallely

China’s heavy-handed reaction to the award of the Nobel peace Prize to a peaceful pro-democracy campaigner may have reaped some short-term rewards. After all some 19 nations have now capitulated to pressure from Beijing to boycott tomorrow’s ceremony where the place of the recipient, Liu Xiaobo, will be taken by an empty chair. But the Chinese government’s outrage may backfire in the long term.

Right now things are much more difficult for human rights advocates in China. Amnesty International is getting reports from reliable sources of hundreds of people affected by the clampdown Beijing has put in place since news of Mr Liu’s award was announced.

“We know of 274 people who have been arrested, placed under house, refused permission to travel or who are unable to go about their daily work, said Amnesty’s China specialist Harriet Garland.  “And there may be many more.”

The restrictions in place are even more stringent than those which were imposed during the Beijing Olympics.

Having said that the Nobel announcement has greatly raised morale among Chinese pro-democracy campaigners. “Awarding the prize to Liu Xiaobo has had quite an electrifying effective on the human rights community,” said Sophie Richardson, a China analyst with the lobby group Human Rights Watch, who is in Olso for today’s ceremony. “It’s so long since anyone has so evocatively and so firmly expressed opposition to the Chinese government’s hostility to human rights. And that’s been an enormous boost.

“It supports and vindicates not just human rights activists and organisations but everyone in China who is trying to make the government more responsive and accountable,” she added. “It says to all those people in China that their ideas are valid and will be supported by the outside world.”

Beijing further undermined its own position yesterday with the launch of a rival peace prize, the Confucius Prize, which appeared to descend into farce when a spokesman for the putative recipient, the former Taiwanese vice-president Lien Chan, claimed he had never heard of the prize and had no intention of collecting it.

Moreover the list of those governments supporting the Chinese boycott – Russia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Kazakhstan, Colombia, Tunisia, Pakistan, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Venezuela, the Philippines, Egypt, Sudan, Ukraine, Cuba and Morocco – constitute an axis of weevils whose record on human rights is not exactly luminescent. “We weren’t exactly anticipating a change in the attitude of the Cuban and Vietnamese governments on human rights violations,” Sophie Richardson added tartly.

So thin is real support for Beijing’s blustering outrage that Chinese diplomats have been resorting to blackmailing the staff of Oslo’s Chinese restaurants to turn out for anti-Nobel protests today.

China’s high-octane reaction has pretty much underscored the very case that Liu Xiaobo was making in Charter 08, the document calling for gradual political reforms, which he co-authored in 2008, and which got him an 11-year jail sentence for subversion.

“The focus this week has all been on reaction diplomatically but the real challenge for the Chinese government is domestic,” said Tom Porteous, director of the London office of Human Rights Watch. “The Nobel Prize going to Liu Xiaobo has made people in China ask who he is and why he is in prison. When they find out it is just for peaceful campaigning for democracy that puts pressure on the Chinese government and gives support to those inside it who are pressing for reform”

Harriet Garland at Amnesty agrees. “The fact that they clamped down on him so quickly after Charter 08 was authored [he was arrested even before it was published] is testament to the fact that the authorities fear him as an influential figure within China. Now they have cast themselves in the role of villains instead of taking it gracefully and using it as an opportunity to release him.”

What Liu Xiaobo makes of it all we can only guess. But when the veteran of the 1989 pro-reform protest in Tiananmen Square was, for the fourth time, sentenced to prison in 2008 he said that he had been absolutely confident that he would be jailed – and added: “I don’t fear it. I see it as a necessary step in a journey.”

Today, though he is confined in the small windowless cell he shares with five other men in Jinzhou Prison, he will take another massive step on his country’s long march to freedom.

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