The ceremony on Friday night was exemplary. The chair of the Nobel judges, Thorbjorn Jagland, left the prize on the empty chair that should have been occupied by the imprisoned human rights activist Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波), had the Chinese authorities allowed him — or his wife — to travel to Norway to accept it. An audience including some of the world’s most august people offered a standing ovation. There was a haunting violin recital of Chinese music.
The same could not be said of China’s behavior. It was stung into a diplomatic and propaganda campaign against the Nobel Peace Prize committee that has reached new heights of ham-fistedness. For everything China has done over this affair has been ill thought-out and self-defeating. The regime must be very fearful indeed about the potential of the society on which it has been sitting for years to erupt — and the surprisingly lively pro-democracy movement to go viral — for it to mobilize against one solitary activist to such an extent. What we have witnessed is not the strength of a new great power in the making as today’s China is commonly understood — but profound and psychotic weakness. China’s anti-peace prize campaign is born of deep apprehension of its own vulnerability and lack of legitimacy.
China improbably claimed that the award was to a criminal, and thus mocked the Chinese legal system that had convicted him to 11 years’ imprisonment. It campaigned to persuade countries not to attend the ceremony, with the implicit promise of reward for those who conformed and penalties for those who did not. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Russia duly obliged. It has cracked down on its domestic dissidents with even more force and paranoia than usual. And it launched its own rival Confucius peace prize as a symbol of Asian values and priorities.
This was meant to reinforce the idea that there was now a new global center of economic and cultural power anchored in non-Western values based in Asia in general and China in particular. But the Confucius peace prize was a complete fiasco. It was awarded to a Beijing stooge, former Taiwanese vice president Lien Chan (連戰). He then did not turn up to accept it, so the organizers turned to the trusty notion of asking a garishly lipsticked six-year-old girl to accept the prize in his stead as symbol of innocence. What had been designed as a celebration of Confucianism ended up highlighting its embedded flaws. Today, in its name, the Chinese state can set up an alternative peace prize and award the alleged honor to whom it pleases in a completely opaque process. If this represents Asian values, the world should shiver.
The party has a long record of opportunistically exploiting Confucianism to shore up its appeal. Liu Shaoqi (劉少奇), in the 1940s one of the five-strong leadership group around Mao Zedong (毛澤東), argued that the essence of becoming an effective communist was the same as becoming a good Confucian — inner steel, self-criticism and self-discipline. Yet even while he wrote, the same party could damn Confucianism for trapping China in hidebound pre-modern traditions, corruption and suffocating poverty. Today that criticism is forgotten. The party now needs Confucianism too much to dare to be critical.
Part of the overreaction to Liu Xiaobo is that the party leadership knows that regime change in the Confucian Imperial era always came through revolt from below — and that when Liu Xiaobo dismisses Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) as leader of “the communist mafia” he combines effective and highly personal attacks on the new communist mandarinate with principled adherence to human rights and constitutional democracy. This was the position of Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙), who toppled the Qing dynasty in 1911, appealing to universal values. The danger is obvious.