Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), the imprisoned Chinese writer and human-rights campaigner, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday. For the first time in history, however, neither the laureate nor an immediate family member were present in Oslo to accept the award.
China’s government blocked Liu’s wife, the acclaimed photographer Liu Xia (劉霞), from participating by keeping her under virtual house arrest in Beijing. It has also browbeaten other countries into boycotting the award ceremony.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s nation was among the first to kowtow to China’s diktat. More ominously, it looked for a while like the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee itself might bow to Beijing, too. However, 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 Xiaobo learned 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,” he said.
That simple phrase neatly encapsulates Liu Xiaobo’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 also held under house arrest. Despite this, Liu continued to write and petition the government on behalf of the people of China. Like the greatest non--violent freedom fighters of modern times — Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, former South African president Nelson Mandela and former Czech president Vaclav Havel — he sacrificed his own freedom to highlight his people’s lack of it.
Many individuals and countries demonstrated their support for the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award the prize to Liu. Indeed, Havel and a previous laureate, Desmond Tutu, were consistent advocates of awarding him the prize. However, in addition to supporting Liu’s achievements by making certain they were 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 it is in economic competition with China, it often fails to see that it is also in moral competition with China. Having become much richer during 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.
Though now better off than they have ever been in material terms, Chinese under the current regime are denied any real opportunity to retain and refine their own dignity beyond the quest for wealth. Liu Xiaobo’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 where justice is absent, Liu Xiaobo’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. Inevitably, the ordinary men and women who have built modern China will demand to live with freedom commensurate to their material achievements.