On Friday, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded this year’s Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波). For only the third time in the history of the award, its recipient is currently imprisoned by his own government. The first two were German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky in 1935 and Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991.
Reactions have been predictable. Chinese authorities are furious, partly because the history of the award places them in the company of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi party and the ultra-repressive military junta that still keeps Aung San Suu Kyi under arrest, and partly because in awarding Liu the prize, the committee defied a Chinese warning that doing so would negatively affect relations between the two counties.
Elsewhere, praise has been loud and heartfelt — for Liu, whose own commitments represent a cadre of activists that has kept reform alive in China for decades under terrible conditions, but also for the prize committee itself, for its courage at a time when the first move in the Chinese foreign affairs playbook is increasing intimidation.
In Taipei the response has been more muted. President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) congratulated Liu and repeated his remark on the recent anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, calling on China to address human rights issues with a more liberal attitude. The next day, to a crowd of Double Ten National Day visitors, he added that he hoped Liu would be released. Such reticence reflects Ma’s wish to avoid angering the Chinese while his administration is trying to improve cross-strait relations.
Before calling this response spineless, however, which no doubt many will, and while acknowledging that Liu deserves his prize every bit as much as China should be ashamed of it, it is worth reflecting on why discretion might be the best policy.
For one thing, while public criticism may have a place, it also comes with a cost. Experts warn that the award will probably make China more, rather than less, repressive, at least in the short-term, worsening conditions for people like Liu. Shaming may also set back what appears to be a growing belief among Chinese leaders that political reform is needed. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) has called for such reform on five different occasions since August.
Shaming also creates a false sense of righteousness in accusers. China is certainly not alone in its history of repression or resistance to change. While US President Barack Obama was among the first to call for Liu’s release, he is a living reminder of his county’s appalling racial history. And in Taiwan, on the very day the award was announced, legislators hastily approved Ma’s nominees to head the Judicial Yuan, neither of whom seems intent on reform, even as hundreds languish in legal limbo in jails and prisons and serious questions are asked about the competence and integrity of the judiciary.
The wholesale shaming of China over its human rights record erodes perspective on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, impeding engagement that is the most important force driving change. This perspective cannot be lost. Even the committee that awarded Liu’s prize tempered criticism by acknowledging the remarkable progress China has achieved in recent decades, political and economic.
For obvious reasons, we focus on the threat posed by China, a threat made all too real by its missiles and stories like Liu’s. Yet whatever fear they bear, such stories cannot be allowed to corrupt the many forms of exchange that have developed, as every tourist, businessperson and student who crosses the Taiwan Strait advances the future of which Liu dreams.