Viewpoint: Why is China making a fuss about the Nobel?

By Kerry Brown
Senior Fellow, Chatham House Asia Programme

  • Published

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu declared on Tuesday that any country sending representatives to the ceremony in Oslo awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo were "clowns".

In China's eyes, the jailed dissident is a criminal. Their response to the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to him has been shrill and unrelenting.

Many wonder why the fuss, when the prize has long been regarded by many as highly politicised and increasingly irrelevant.

Nobel prizes may have lost their lustre in China today, but they have not, it seems, wholly lost their allure.

Wandering around a bookshop in a provincial Chinese city in 1995, I was astonished to see a multi-volume set of books, comprising representative works of every single Nobel Prize in Literature winner since its inception.

Most of the figures were long forgotten. But this collection, all translated into Chinese, was symptomatic of just how strong the desire in China at that time was for the country to have its own authentic winner of one of the prizes.

And while former winners who were ethnically Chinese were always accorded a warm welcome back in their ancestral home, the government put a lot of effort and money into gaining one of these throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The 2001 Literature award to emigre Chinese writer Gao Xingjian was a rude awakening.

Gao had written unflattering things about modern China, and not even lived there since 1990. His works were condemned as decadent by the authorities.

Since then, the public support for the Nobel prizes has dimmed.


But privately, the Nobel Prize, for whatever discipline, still maintains an extraordinary resonance in China.

It is linked to the pursuit of modernity, global recognition and academic and intellectual excellence that the country has tried to pursue through its educational and economic policies.

That the country's most senior leaders have sanctioned an all-out diplomatic onslaught after Mr Liu's success might seem surprising - but they are in a quandary.

For many of the more nationalist bloggers, like Wang Xiaodong and his co-authors of the 2009 bestseller, China is Not Happy, this kind of slap in the face from a formerly esteemed and admired Western institution is exactly the kind of thing they most protest against.

"We took your advice and modernised using Western means," Mr Wang and his fellow writers complain, "and then the West rejects us."

The implication is that the West is ganging up on a China that is increasingly playing the modernising game created outside its borders to its own advantage.

The Nobel Prize, in this context, looks like a form of intellectual containment and rejection.

It is seen as a deliberate attempt by Western elites to humiliate and embarrass China and its current leaders, challenging their legitimacy and authority.

The bottom line is that China, at least on the record of winners so far, cannot produce internationally recognised scientists, economists, writers and public figures.

All it can produce are world-class dissidents.

The one laureate in the People's Republic of China's history who gained the prize while still in the country is a prisoner, jailed for 11 years on Christmas Day in 2009 for state subversion.

'Clash of civilisations'

Image caption,
Mr Liu is the only person to have won the Nobel prize while still in China

Beijing could have exercised lofty disdain, much as the Soviet Union did when Andre Sakharov was awarded his prize in 1977.

No public comment was given, his family were allowed to attend the ceremony, and the event received no coverage in the Soviet media.

But for the Chinese government, who have high levels of disdain for the record of their former socialist brothers across the border in Russia, this offers no model.

To them, having implemented profound economic and social changes in the last three decades, the West's continued refusal to celebrate this and to look only at problem areas is an insult.

Right or wrong, the dialogue is now hardening into precisely the kind of "clash of civilisations" that former elite leaders in China like Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s did their best to avoid.

For that reason, the 2010 Nobel Prize Peace raises many difficult but urgent and important questions - most importantly what it was that Mr Liu said that upset Chinese leaders so much, and why was their only final response to chuck him in jail?

So far, the Chinese government's response has been angry shouts and intolerance. But sooner or later, it will have to come up with something a little more reasoned.

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