Op-Ed Contributors

No winners in Nobel saga

Updated: 2010-12-10 10:40

By David Gosset (China Daily European Weekly)

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No winners in Nobel saga
The Oslo ceremony on Dec 10 could have been useful and meaningful, an inclusive celebration of the world's best hopes. Instead, it will be a solemn ritual of accusation which will take mutual misunderstanding and mistrust between the West and China to a tragic level. [Li Min / China Daily]

The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to jailed Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo has certainly become an international cause clbre, 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 in the West would like to see a radically different China before it fully integrates into the world system, 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.

When, conscious of all the ambiguities surrounding his choice, Thorbjorn 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 Von Ossietzky or Lutuli, the committee implicitly associates post-Maoist China with the Nazi era or 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, they simultaneously categorize and judge 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 of South Africa, two moral authorities in their countries, explain that "this need not be a moment of insult for China" (Washington Post, Oct 22), but how to 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 inhabitants with a GDP per capita 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 opening-up, reforms 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 GDP per capita 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.

Third, the choice made under the chairmanship of the former Norwegian prime minister and current secretary general of the Council of Europe can be interpreted as "politicized" and anti-People's Republic of China. To a certain extent, it does regrettably reignite an unnecessary ideological confrontation.

Liu Xiaobo promoted Charter 08, and readers of this political manifesto, among which, we assume, are the five members of the committee, are aware that it calls for a revolutionary disintegration of the People's Republic of China. If Charter 08 has been formally inspired by Charter 77, the two contents cannot be compared since the text signed by Vaclav Havel in 1977 was not advocating a revolution but only the application of legal rights.

The 18th objective of Charter 08 - the notion of a federation of Chinese democratic communities made of Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang - would generate chaos if not a large scale civil war. Jagland insists: "We want to see progress continue (in China), and that is why we awarded the Peace Prize to Mr Liu." (New York Times, Oct 22). Jagland should know that a rearrangement of China's national territory and borders of such a magnitude would take the country back to instability and internecine fights in a tragic regression.

In a highly stimulating op-ed, Eric Li rightly states that "the Norwegian Nobel Committee represents those in the West who believe a color revolution such as those that took place in Eastern Europe would lead China down the path of Western-style liberal democracy. In this, they are utterly ignorant of China's history and the nature of modern China. The revolution they seek, if it happened, would bring anything but liberty and responsibility. The revolution that is taking place they miss completely." (New York Times, Dec 6)

Fourth, and it is a corollary of the preceding point, the committee opted for a highly divisive choice. Contrary to Alfred Nobel's will which points to the recognition of a person "who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations", the 2010 announcement brings discord, incomprehension and confusion between China and the West when one should create the conditions for harmony and synergy.

The committee believes that a strict reference to abstract principles enshrined in international agreements is conducive to convergence but its choice does not integrate the subtle balance between the existence of universal values and the no less real difference between levels of development. In a sense, the committee's pure idealism excluded history whereas it is the combination of the two, a genuine political philosophy, which has relevance and significance.

Finally, given China's past two centuries and its memory of Western imperialism, the decision is, to a certain extent, counterproductive.

The disapproval of the committee's decision is not a call for Beijing's immobility, but it stems from the conviction that necessary gradual adjustments will have to be responsibly designed within China, and, given the PRC's objective situation, within the Communist Party of China itself.

As a matter of fact, China's political transformation is already at work and occupies an increasingly central position in the Party's internal debates.

Thomas Jefferson's ideal, eloquently expressed in his First Inaugural Address, can serve as an universal source of inspiration: "If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it."

However, the third president of the United States was also the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and the Chinese people, and only them, will define the exact terms and pace of Beijing's democratization. In the 21st century, the West's influence cannot be imposed by spectacular lessons of governance but can only be proportionate with its capacity to perfect itself.

The Nobel Peace Prize remains a respectable institution and, more generally, China knows how to appreciate the Nobel tradition. Shanghai Jiaotong University has just hired the French virologist Luc Montagnier, the discoverer of HIV, the first time a Nobel laureate has become a full-time faculty member on the Chinese mainland. One can hope that, in a near future, the Nobel Peace Prize committee presents to the world a more accurate picture of the Chinese renaissance as an engine of global economic growth, as a pole of stability and a source of wisdom. The committee could recognize, for example, the efforts of Chinese individuals who work patiently for the improvement of the legal system, for the protection of the environment, for more open and sophisticated media without adopting the radical approach of dissidence.

The Oslo ceremony on Dec 10 could have been useful and meaningful, an inclusive celebration of the world's best hopes. Instead, it will be a solemn ritual of accusation which will take mutual misunderstanding and mistrust between the West and China to a tragic level. However, despite the committee's unwise choice, amid a long series of self-serving monologues, dialogue has to go on.

David Gosset is director of the Euro-China Center for International and Business Relations (ECCIR) at China-Europe International Business School, Shanghai & Beijing, and founder of the Euro-China Forum. The opinions expressed in this article neither represent those of ECCIR nor of the Euro-China Forum.


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