Here on this blessed website, I’ve gone on a bit about the Nobel Peace Prize — the award this year to Liu Xiaobo. And I will have a piece in the forthcoming National Review (available in digital form tomorrow, and available in the hoary paper form shortly thereafter). But I’d like to devote a chunk of today’s column to the subject — and give you some comments from a couple of Liu’s fellow dissidents, with whom I’ve communicated.
Liu, as you know, is in prison. He has been in prisons, and a “reeducation through labor” camp, off and on for more than 20 years, since Tiananmen Square took place. And he is the first Chinese dissident — indeed, the first Chinese person — to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Chinese Communism has been in power since 1949; many brave and heroic people have struggled against it. So this prize was a long time in coming.
Soviet Communism was in power for almost 75 years: 1917 to 1991. There were just two Nobel Peace Prizes for those who struggled against this power (and there were many, many such strugglers, plenty of whom sacrificed their lives). Andrei Sakharov won in 1975. And Lech Walesa — a Pole, to be sure, but a contender with Soviet Communism all the same — won in 1983. I talked to Walesa earlier this year, and reported that conversation in NR. To see that article, go here
The Nobel Committee honored the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa three times: the first time in 1961, when the Nobel for 1960 went to Albert John Lutuli. (In the past, the committee often waited a year, before conferring the prize for a particular year.) The second time was in 1984, when Bishop Tutu won. The last time was in 1993, at the glorious, longed-for end of apartheid. Nelson Mandela and F. W. de Klerk won jointly.
Over the decades, Chinese dissidents, democracy activists, and political prisoners were frequently nominated. Often, they were “frontrunners,” according to speculation in the press. But they never won. It got to be kind of a joke. The rumor would be that a Chinese dissident was in line for the prize. The Chinese government would warn Norway, “You’d better not!” (The Nobel Committee is independent from the Norwegian government, though appointed by the parliament.) And somebody else would win — a non-Chinese.
(Did I mention that the Nobel Committee is composed of five Norwegians? Did I mention that the peace committee is a Norwegian committee, whereas the other Nobel committees are Swedish? I guess not. Sorry about that.)
Wei Jingsheng, the dissident and hero now in exile in the United States, was often a frontrunner. And often an also-ran. Laureates, in their Nobel speeches, would have to hail him, the way Oscar winners, clutching their precious statuettes, hail their colleagues who lost out. In 1996, Bishop Belo of East Timor said, “I think of China, and I pray for the well-being of Mr. Wei Jingsheng and his colleagues, and hope that they will soon be liberated from their jail cells.” His co-laureate, José Ramos-Horta, complimented Wei as “one of China’s best children.” Well, that was nice.
The next year, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, and its leader Jody Williams, won. A man named Rae McGrath spoke for the ICBL. (Williams spoke separately.) He said, “We would . . . like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to a fellow nominee and champion of civil action, Wei Jingsheng, and wish him well . . .” That was nice, too.
To its credit, the Nobel Committee honored the Dalai Lama in 1989. Earlier that year, the Chinese government had slaughtered peaceful protesters at Tiananmen Square. The Nobel Committee chairman, in remarks to the press, said that the 1989 award should be taken not just as encouragement to the Dalai Lama and Tibet; it should also be taken as encouragement to the Chinese democracy movement. The Dalai Lama paid tribute to the Tiananmen dead in his Nobel lecture.
(And when Liu Xiaobo learned of his own Nobel prize, he said it “goes first” to those Tiananmen dead.)
I asked Wei Jingsheng, via e-mail, what he thought of the 2010 prize. He said that it was of course good that the matter of Chinese human rights was brought into the international spotlight. But Liu was a “moderate reformer”: the kind willing to work with the government, hopeful of working with the government. The Nobel Committee could not stomach a different, less “moderate” kind of dissident. And what did it tell us about the Chinese government, said Wei, that even a moderate reformer could get eleven years? That is the duration of Liu’s current prison term: The clock started ticking only last December.
Wei recognizes that not everyone can win the Nobel Peace Prize. And it was good that a Chinese, any Chinese, won. But he named several others who might well have won, who deserve the honor, and glory, and help. (He excluded himself.) He named Gao Zhisheng, Chen Guangcheng, Huang Qi, Hu Jia, the group called Tiananmen Mothers, “and so on.”
Let me return to the Dalai Lama for a moment: He could not have won the Nobel prize if he hadn’t been a “moderate” — a moderate opponent of Beijing. Of that I feel quite sure. The Nobel chairman in 1989 stressed the laureate’s “willingness to compromise.” For example, the Dalai Lama did not favor Tibetan independence, merely autonomy. And yet, the Chinese government took the prize to him very badly. You know what a Chinese official in Oslo said, when the 1989 prize was announced? “It is interference in China’s internal affairs. It has hurt the Chinese people’s feelings.”
As I say in my NR piece, maybe the government handed out Kleenex.
In 2003, the Nobel Committee gave the peace prize to a moderate reformer in Iran, Shirin Ebadi. She was indeed in Iran, not outside it. She was not an exile. And she was a long way from “radical” dissidence. She insisted that democracy was compatible, not just with Islam, but also with an “Islamic republic.” She wanted reform from within. She did not advocate the overthrow of the regime. And she said all the right things about the United States and Israel, the Great Satan and the Little Satan. At times, her rhetoric is barely distinguishable from that of the regime. Iranian dissidents in exile protested her Nobel prize on the streets of Oslo, as the ceremony was going on.
But: Ebadi had done, and has done, brave and important things. She has stuck her neck out. And, much to her sorrow, she is in exile now. Sometimes a totalitarian dictatorship doesn’t give you much choice, you know?