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by Jay Nordlinger

The Norwegian Nobel Committee gives the peace prize to a Chinese hero

On the second Friday in October, the customary day, the Norwegian Nobel Committee made its big announcement. This is the committee that determines the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. And, this year, the committee announced for a Chinese dissident — an imprisoned Chinese dissident named Liu Xiaobo. This is a gratifying, even a thrilling, Nobel decision.

Last year’s was much different. The 2009 laureate was, is, President Obama. He has not made human rights or democracy a hallmark of his foreign policy. He has certainly not lent a hand to the Chinese democracy movement. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled the mood of the administration early. In February 2009, a month after Obama was sworn in, she was discussing Sino-American relations. And she said that human rights would not “interfere” with such urgent issues as “the global climate-change crisis.” The Nobel Committee noted and appreciated Obama’s unwillingness to rock the boat, where human rights were concerned. Presenting the award to Obama in December 2009, Thorbjorn Jagland, the committee chairman, cited the president’s “cooperation with Beijing.”

This year, the committee showed a different face. Every now and then, the committee will give a human-rights award, or a freedom award. When did this start? The peace prize started in 1901, along with the other Nobel prizes, but the first human-rights award was the one for 1960, really. It went to Albert John Lutuli, a leader of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. He did not work for “fraternity between nations” — that is the key phrase in Alfred Nobel’s will. He worked for the freedom of black South Africans. But the committee in Oslo gave him the peace prize.

In 1936, the committee had given the award to Carl von Ossietzky, a political prisoner of the Nazis. (The award was for 1935, but determined and announced in 1936.) Some people consider this the first human-rights Nobel. But the committee was specifically rewarding Ossietzky for his career-long pacifism. Specifics aside, Hitler and his government were not best pleased: They forbade German citizens to accept any Nobel prize, and set up Nobels of their own — alternative Nobels.

Hitler’s soon-to-be partner in Moscow, Stalin, would do something similar in the next decade. The Nobel Committee was not giving him and other Communist bigshots its peace prize. Frustrated, he created the Stalin Peace Prize — or, more formally, the International Stalin Prize for Strengthening Peace among Peoples. The next decade, when Khrushchev was taking Stalin’s name off things, he took it off that, too, and put Lenin’s on in place. Linus Pauling was a Nobel peace laureate (and chemistry laureate!) who also won the Lenin Peace Prize. The old fellow traveler said the prize from the Soviet government meant more to him than the prize from the Norwegians.

In the long, horrible history of Soviet Communism — 1917 to 1991 — the Nobel Committee gave just two awards to those struggling against this power. Andrei Sakharov, the great Russian dissident and physicist, won in 1975. Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader in Poland — whose foe was Soviet Communism, broadly speaking — won in 1983. The Nobel Committee honored the anti-apartheid movement three times.

Chinese Communism took power in 1949, but Chinese dissidents were always overlooked, until now. They were frequently nominated. And they were frequently “frontrunners,” according to speculation in the press. It became kind of a joke. It would be rumored that a Chinese dissident was in the running. The Chinese government would warn Norway, “You’d better not!” (The committee is independent from the Norwegian government, though appointed by the parliament.) And the laureate would always be someone else.

Wei Jingsheng, the Chinese democracy hero, was often an also-ran. Laureates, in their Nobel lectures, would hail him, the way Oscar winners hail their colleagues who lost out on the statuette. Take 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, praised Wei as “one of China’s best children.” Some consolation, perhaps.

To its credit, the Nobel Committee honored the Dalai Lama in 1989 — the Dalai Lama being the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, a land swallowed by the Chinese Communists in the 1950s. The Nobel chairman told the press that the prize to the Dalai Lama should be taken as encouragement, not just to Tibetans, but also to the Chinese democracy movement: The authorities in Beijing had slaughtered peaceful protesters in Tiananmen Square earlier in the year. When the announcement for the Dalai Lama was made, a Chinese official in Oslo said, “It is interference in China’s internal affairs. It has hurt the Chinese people’s feelings.” Perhaps the government provided Kleenex.

The Chinese democrats thought they might win in 2009: Obama’s year. It was the 60th anniversary of the Communist takeover, the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s flight out of Tibet, and the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen Square. (The Nobel Committee is very fond of anniversaries, I should say.) But no. Passed over again, some of the Chinese activists were bitter.

And pressure mounted on the committee. How long could they continue to snub the men and women risking everything, even their lives, for freedom, democracy, and human rights in the most populous nation on earth? Candidates for the prize included Gao Zhisheng, Hu Jia, and a group called Tiananmen Mothers, as well as Wei. It really didn’t matter who got the prize: as long as an advocate of Chinese freedom got it.

And that turned out to be Liu Xiaobo, an intellectual associated with the Charter 08 movement. This movement is modeled on Charter 77, the Czechoslovakian movement from which Vaclav Havel emerged. Havel — often a nominee himself, but never winning — backed Liu for the prize. So did a great many others, of various nationalities. Liu has stuck his neck out for many years. He was at Tiananmen Square — and imprisoned for a year and a half after that. He was imprisoned again in 1995. From 1996 to 1999, he was in a “reeducation-through-labor camp.” He was most recently seized in December 2008, and sentenced a year later. He sits in prison today. Learning of the Nobel Committee’s decision, he said through tears that the prize “goes first” to the dead at Tiananmen Square.

The Chinese government had warned the committee not to honor Liu, or any other Chinese dissident. Again, the government has always issued such warnings. So did the Nazis in 1936. But the Nobel Committee defied Beijing, as it had Berlin. The committee selected Liu as the “foremost symbol” of the Chinese struggle for a democratic life. Predictably, the Chinese government reacted badly: calling the award an “obscenity” and placing Liu’s wife under house arrest. The government also did its best to shut Liu’s name out of all media.

Some Westerners were sympathetic to the Chinese government. A host on BBC Radio said to me (I paraphrase, just slightly), “Doesn’t the Chinese government have a legitimate concern about its national security? Did not Liu Xiaobo help lead an insurrection at Tiananmen Square?” I wonder whether a BBC host has ever shown such concern over Falun Gong practitioners, arrested and tortured to death every week.

Some wonder whether the Nobel prize will effect Liu’s release. And that depends on what the government thinks is in its best interest. Some governments are simply unbudging. Hitler’s was: Ossietzky remained in confinement (and died there, in 1938). The Burmese dictatorship hardly batted an eye when Aung San Suu Kyi, the national democracy leader, won in 1991: She is even now under house arrest. Sakharov was not in prison when he won in 1975, but the Soviet authorities were keeping him on a tight rein. His widow, Elena Bonner, recently told me that the rein didn’t get any looser — in fact tightened further — after he won.

Four Nobel peace laureates have been unable, for political reasons, to travel to Oslo in December to attend the ceremony and pick up the prize: Ossietzky, Sakharov, Walesa, and Aung San Suu Kyi. Will Liu be the fifth? It seems that way. Will his wife be allowed to speak for him? Ossietzky had no one. (Goering asked him to refuse and renounce the prize, by the way. The prisoner told him to stuff it.) Bonner and Danuta Walesa spoke for their husbands. Aung San Suu Kyi’s husband and two sons stood in for her.

The Nobel chairman in 1975, Aase Lionaes, did something nervy at the ceremony that year. She said, “The Nobel Committee deeply deplores the fact that Andrei Sakharov has been prevented from being present here today in person to receive the peace prize. This is a fate he shares with the man who, forty years ago in 1935, was awarded the peace prize. His name was Carl von Ossietzky.” Never mind the technical detail that Ossietzky’s prize had come in 1936, for 1935: Lionaes had hit them between the eyes. She had linked the Soviets’ behavior with the Nazis’. Will Chairman Jagland, in December, link Beijing’s behavior to that of the Soviet Union and the Third Reich?

The Nobel Peace Prize can be a great weapon. Walesa told me that it meant everything to him: everything to the cause of Solidarity. Sometimes the prize has no impact, at least in the near term. Liu’s prize will certainly not overthrow China’s one-party dictatorship; it may not even succeed in unlocking his prison cell. But it has lifted the morale of the Chinese democracy movement. It is late in coming — and Cubans are still waiting, after 50 years of Communist dictatorship — but it is welcome and important. Just when you’re ready to give up on the Nobel Peace Prize as absurd and worthless, the committee goes ahead and does something magnificent.

Last December, after his latest farce of a trial, at which he received eleven years, Liu said, “The sentence violates the Chinese constitution and international human-rights covenants. It cannot bear moral scrutiny and will not pass the test of history. I believe that my work has been just, and that someday China will be a free and democratic country.”

– Mr. Nordlinger, an NR senior editor, last wrote about the Nobel Peace Prize in our June 21 issue, when he reported a conversation with Lech Walesa. He is completing a book on the prize, to be published by Encounter.

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