LONDON — Liu Xiaobo, the imprisoned Chinese writer and human-rights campaigner, will receive the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. For the first time in history, however, neither the laureate nor any member of his immediate family will be present in Oslo to accept the award.
China’s government has blocked Liu’s wife, the acclaimed photographer Liu Xia, from participating by keeping her under virtual house arrest in Beijing. It has browbeaten other countries into boycotting the award ceremony.
Not surprisingly, Vladimir Putin’s Russia was among the first to kowtow to China’s diktat. More ominously, it looked for a while like the Norwegian Nobel committee itself might bow to Beijing, too. But in the end it decided to go ahead with the award. That is only fitting: An award for moral courage ought not to be compromised by those offering it.
When Liu learned that he had been awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, his first reaction was telling: “This prize is given to the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre.”
That simple phrase neatly encapsulates Liu’s peaceful 20-year- resistance to China’s government, which began with a hunger strike in Tiananmen Square. Over the next two decades, he was imprisoned several times, and held under house arrest when not in prison. Despite this persecution, Liu continued to write and petition the government on behalf of the people of China.
Like the greatest nonviolent freedom fighters of modern times — Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel — he sacrificed his own freedom to highlight his people’s lack of it.
Today, many individuals and countries are demonstrating their support for the Nobel Peace Prize Committee’s decision to award the prize to Liu. Indeed, Havel and a previous laureate, Desmond Tutu, were consistent advocates of awarding the prize to him. But in addition to supporting Liu’s achievements by making certain that they are represented at the ceremony in Oslo, world leaders need to come to grips with the Chinese government’s reaction.
Although much of the world recognizes that it is in economic competition with China, it often fails to see that it is also in moral competition with China. The Communist Party of China used to rule a destitute power. But having become much richer over the past three decades, China is now proposing to the world its own model of development — and, indeed, of civilization.
This model, which some have dubbed “The Beijing Consensus,” is explicit: There are no moral standards, only material ones. Human rights and freedom can be made to disappear not only from Web sites, but also from reality.
Although they are now better off than they have ever been in material terms, the Chinese people under the current regime are denied any real opportunity to retain and refine their own dignity beyond the quest for wealth and luxury goods.
Liu’s prize is a rebuke to the regime, because it rejects the dogma that nothing but the pursuit of economic interest matters.
China’s rulers know that in a system in which justice is absent, Liu’s efforts to speak to a higher moral calling requires only moral courage to be followed. The regime has tried to separate politics and economics, but Liu has shown that this is impossible. Any Chinese can become another Liu Xiaobo if they choose to see through the lies of the regime’s “Materialism/Leninism.”
But even here there is a paradox for the regime. For inevitably, the ordinary men and women who have built modern China will demand to live in a freedom commensurate to their material achievements.
So a civilized China is emerging, just as a civilized Eastern Europe once emerged, from the hearts and minds of prisoners of conscience, of people like Liu Xiaobo. Havel, who has inspired Liu as he has so many others who aspire to freedom, wrote a public letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao after Liu’s latest imprisonment. In it, he said: “Mr. Liu’s trial was the result of a political order for which you carry ultimate political responsibility.”
Just as Czechoslovakia’s communist government once imprisoned Havel for daring to dream of a civil society and a true constitution of liberty for his country, China’s government has imprisoned Liu for attempting something similar, with his Charter 08 appeal, modeled on Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77.
Havel eventually saw his ideas triumph in the Velvet Revolution of 1989. Liu Xiaobo is demonstrating anew the unstoppable power of the powerless. Awarding him the Nobel Peace Prize lifts the hopes of all of us who dream of a truly free and civilized China.
And we might also dream that next December, the Nobel committee will at long last recognize Havel for an award whose meaning he truly personifies.
Ma Jian, a Chinese dissident and novelist, was awarded the Athens Prize for Literature in 2010 for his novel “Beijing Coma.” © 2010 Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org)