Liu Xiaobo (劉曉波) has instantly achieved global icon status by winning the Nobel Peace Prize, but some dyed-in-the-wool Chinese dissidents are crying foul, seeing the award as a victory for a more moderate, accommodating brand of activism.
Liu, the first Chinese citizen to win the Nobel Peace Prize, is a 54-year-old writer imprisoned since December after authoring Charter 08, a manifesto signed by thousands seeking greater rights in the communist nation.
Wei Jingsheng (魏京生) — who spent nearly two decades in prison and is often seen as the father of China’s modern democracy movement — said Liu was more acceptable to the Nobel committee and even Beijing because he worked within the system.
However, Wei said China showed no sign of changing.
“Raising the reputation of moderate reformists would increase people’s desire to cooperate with the government, thus helping stabilize the political situation in China and delaying the time when people overthrow the dictatorial government,” Wei said in Washington, where he lives in exile.
Wei, 60, a former electrician at the Beijing zoo, was sentenced to death row after boldly putting up a poster seeking democracy in 1979. He was finally freed after intervention by then-US president Bill Clinton. Wei was himself often tipped for the Nobel Peace Prize in the past.
He said “tens of thousands” of Chinese other than Liu deserved the award, including Gao Zhisheng (高智晟), a missing human rights lawyer, and Chen Guangcheng (陳光誠), who exposed abuses in Beijing’s one-child policy.
In a controversial move, a group of exiled Chinese — not including Wei — wrote an open letter to the Nobel committee calling Liu unsuitable for the prize.
Diane Liu (劉曉東), who blogs under the penname San Mei (三妹) and helped organize the letter, faulted Liu for not highlighting the treatment of the Falun Gong spiritual movement, which she called China’s worst human rights problem.
The Falun Gong says it has suffered systematic persecution, including imprisonment and death, since it was banned in 1999.
“The Nobel Prize is for people who speak for human rights. He is not that person,” said Liu, who lives in Chicago. “He deceives the Western world because they don’t read Chinese and they don’t know how tricky the Chinese communist regime plays its game.”
To be sure, many dissidents have saluted Liu Xiaobo. Harry Wu (吳弘達), a Washington-based activist who spent nearly two decades in Chinese labor camps, has led a campaign on social media urging his freedom.
“Liu Xiaobo didn’t organize a party, he didn’t take action, he just said what his ideals were and got 11 years in a prison camp. So that has exposed what the country is and what we can do,” Wu said.
Timothy Cheek, an expert on Chinese intellectuals at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, said the Nobel committee faced an “invidious choice” in choosing only one dissident worthy of the prize.
Paradoxically, Cheek said that Liu Xiaobo may have had an advantage because he is in jail, giving the award more of an impact than if it had gone to a former prisoner such as Wei or Wu.
“Liu Xiaobo is an important Chinese intellectual because he does two things — he criticizes the government and he lives in China. And in order to do that and not be dead, you have to make compromises,” Cheek said.
“He’s a democrat, he’s a human rights activist — that’s what he’s after, but he’s willing to make tactical adjustments in order to be effective and the most important one has been remaining inside China,” Cheek said.