11 October 2010

Nobel Peace Prize winner makes a timely point

The Nobel Peace Prize has been devalued so many times over the years that one could be excused for ignoring it.   From its regular glorification of the UN, to the celebration of fraudsters (Rigoberta Menchu), vacuous self promoters and appeasers (Jimmy Carter, Al Gore), accomplices to mass murder (Henry Kissinger, Yasser Arafat) and celebrators of dictators (Agnes Bojaxhiu), it has occasionally got it right  in more recent years- with Mikhail Gorbachev, Lech Walesa, Aung San Suu Kyi and Martin Luther King Jr. 

Granting it to President Barack Obama when he had demonstrably done nothing in the cause of peace (and whose record to this day remains bountifully barren in this field) even disgusted many who would have tended to be supportive of him.  An award for achievement which is designed to encourage someone who had only achieved rhetoric as substantial as that which lies between Pluto and Neptune is meaningless.

Clearly the Nobel Peace Prize Committee intended to encourage with the granting of the prize to Liu Xiaobo a timely debate within and with China about human rights and freedoms in what is now the world's second biggest economy.  

Xiaobo helped draft Charter 08, China's version of Charter 77 which in socialist Czechoslovakia helped to solidify calls to erode the Marxist-Leninist dictatorship in Prague.  His fundamental call is for China to no longer suppress political speech, a separation of powers between state and party, an independent judiciary, protection of private property rights and liberal democracy.

In that he is calling for that which now exists in Taiwan, which largely exist in Hong Kong and which are taken for granted in the West, and indeed in increasing numbers of Asian states.   Taiwan, South Korea, Indonesia have all transformed themselves from dictatorships of one form of another into liberal open societies, where political debate is vigorous and free speech guaranteed.   China need not fear this.   Indeed, its future prosperity not only relies on it, but will demand it.

Much has been achieved in China in the last twenty years.  There is debate about issues, the gap is questioning the role of the Communist Party, and there is considerable risk if one criticises politicians.   Chinese people can live their lives without much political interference, and the amount of non-political/civil and private space for citizens has grown enormously.   However, without the ability to criticise ones political leaders, China remains a country where the state treats its citizens as children.

China's greatest weakness today is the rule of law.  Without an independent judiciary, without the ability of the judicial system to hold politicians, laws and officials to account - consistently - China retains a system where corruption is built in to the state, party, judiciary and all of the instruments of state violence.

The reaction of the authorities in Beijing is not unexpected, trying to shut down discussion, treating the Prize as "blasphemy" and threatening trade relations with Norway.   This is not how a modern 21st century power behaves, it is how the poor paranoid and blinkered Maoist China of the 1980s would behave.  

Indeed, it is likely that this will cause more harm than good, as the clumsy efforts to censor this news from the Chinese people will fail.  The internet, even as censored as is attempted in China, is too porous for this news not to now be widely known among tens of millions of Chinese citizens.   The attempt at treating these people as children who can't know news about their own country is counter-productive, and will undo the enormous efforts at national loyalty that were promoted by the Olympics and the ongoing national prosperity.   Following this failure, Xinhua News Agency (China's monopoly state news agency) will no doubt try to shape public opinion in the clumsy manner that was its full time job from 1948 till the 1980s, and this will be seen for what it is.

I like China, it is a country of immense diversity, energy, entrepreneurship and good nature.  I want it to succeed, but it is not a bad time to remind it to look at the two models of governance on its doorstep (indeed one shining example at the back door) that allows its citizens the dignity to speak freely about those who govern them and how they behave.   For the past 30 years China has been moving closer to how both Taiwan and Hong Kong operate - Mr Xiaobo reminds us of the great leap forward (!) needed to lift it up to the shining heights of a modern state and society that exist in that province and region.

1 comment:

StephenR said...

Great post. The Chinese should always be reminded of the relatively recent transitions of SK and Taiwan, as well as the examples of Japan and HK.