Many a day, I walk by U.N. headquarters, on my way to NR headquarters. (The United Nations and National Review are very different organizations. Don’t you think?) Often, there is a protest outside the U.N., and it is usually righteous: the Tibetans against the Chinese Communists, the Chinese against the Chinese Communists, the Burmese against the Burmese fascists — or whatever they are — and so on. Friday morning, there was an unusual amount of press around one speaker. And as I got nearer, I could see it was Richard Gere, the actor. (Did I need to say that?) He was speaking in behalf of Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese political prisoner who was being given the Nobel peace prize — in absentia, of course — that day.
I am a great believer in “Shut up and sing” — the idea that entertainers should not involve themselves in politics. But, once in a while, entertainers do good. And Gere knows a heck of a lot about the Chinese government and its various oppressions. I have attended a few international conferences at which he has been present. I’m not name dropping — it’s not like we sat around and discussed actresses or anything.
In any case, if people want to gaze at Gere’s excellent white hair and expensive wire-rimmed glasses, while hearing something true about China — fine with me.
Liu is basically the fifth Nobel peace laureate to be prevented from going to Norway to pick up the prize. Now, why do I say “basically”? Well, let’s run through a little history.
In 1936, Carl von Ossietzky was given the prize (for 1935). (It was a “reserved” award, to use Nobel lingo, given a year late.) He was a political prisoner of the Nazis. When Ossietzky won the prize, Goering went to him and told him to refuse it. Ossietzky told him to stuff it. He was a great man. He, of course, was not released to attend his Nobel ceremony.
In 1975, Andrei Sakharov, the great physicist and great dissident in the Soviet Union, won the prize. The Soviets refused to let him out. His wife, Elena Bonner, was out of the country already — she had been in Italy, receiving medical treatment. She stood in for Sakharov at the Nobel ceremony. She read both his acceptance speech and his Nobel lecture, written by him, the laureate. Have you ever read Sakharov’s Nobel lecture, “Peace, Progress, Human Rights”? Really great. (Find it here.)
In 2010, Liu Xiaobo sat in prison, and his wife was under house arrest.
Now, you’ll often hear that Lech Walesa, the laureate for 1983, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the laureate for 1991, were prevented from going to collect the prize. And that is basically true, essentially true. Here’s the thing: Walesa could have gone. But he wondered how it would look if he went to the West to dine with the swells. What would his comrades in prison think of that? Also, he was worried that the Polish dictatorship would not let him back into the country. And he wanted to remain on native soil, to continue leading the Solidarity movement.
I talked to him about this earlier this year. The way he put it was, “They could have made me an exile. The Communists could have said, ‘They love you so dearly in the West, they have given you the Nobel peace prize, why don’t you stay with them there, forever?’”
Aung San Suu Kyi could have left too — in fact, the Burmese dictatorship would have been delighted to be rid of her. But she, too, wanted, and wants, to remain on native soil, whatever the circumstances.
(For my piece on Walesa and the Nobel prize in the June 21 National Review, go here. For my piece on Liu Xiaobo in the November 1 issue, go here.)
Will the Nobel prize to Liu do him any good? For example, will it free him? I don’t know. Doubt it. The prize did not free Ossietzky. But, in the run-up to the award, when it looked like Ossietzky would win it, the Nazis removed him to a hospital, where he was kept under 24-hour guard. (In 1938, he would die of tuberculosis, plus the effects of torture and hard labor.)
Did the Soviets’ treatment of Sakharov improve after he won the Nobel prize? No. Elena Bonner has told me that it got worse. He had embarrassed them internationally, after all.
Walesa? He says that the Nobel prize meant everything to him and Solidarity — he doesn’t know how they could have succeeded without it.
Aung San Suu Kyi? Has the prize protected her, prevented the regime from killing her? I don’t know.
I believe that the prize will do Liu good on the principle of, The more fame, the better. Dictatorships want their political prisoners to be forgotten; the prisoners want nothing more than to be remembered. That’s why Sakharov, in his Nobel lecture, named the names of political prisoners — about a hundred of them. That’s why Jeane Kirkpatrick named the names of political prisoners on the floor of the U.N. That’s why Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart names the names of political prisoners on the floor of the U.S. House.
I once interviewed, by phone, a Cuban dissident named René Montes de Oca Martija. He had escaped from prison; he would shortly be recaptured. He said he wanted to thank those — including Diaz-Balart — who had remembered him and mentioned him.
The Chinese government was damn ticked, understandably, when Liu got the prize. They took several actions. They denounced the Norwegian Nobel Committee in the usual Communist terms (though I did not hear “running dogs”). They placed the wife under house arrest. They warned other countries not to send ambassadors to the prize ceremony. (Many of them complied, the bastards.) And, oh, yeah: They hacked the website of the Norwegian Nobel Institute.
Come on, guys: You’re a historic dictatorship. Every day, you torture Falun Gong practitioners to death the way normal people say “Good morning.” Hacking a website? It’s basically a junior-high prank. What would the Helmsman say?