Why Obama Didn't Sign the Nobelists' Letter

As mentioned previously here and here, 15 winners of the Nobel Peace Prize signed a letter this week asking the Chinese government to release the latest winner, Liu Xiaobo, from prison and his wife, Liu Xia, from house arrest. Earlier discussion concerned why three prominent names were not on the list of signatories: Al Gore, Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama.

I spoke this evening with a representative of Freedom Now, the group that has worked for Liu's release after his imprisonment and issued the open letter. Here is the news, from Freedom Now's perspective, on why those three people did not sign.

Barack Obama didn't sign because he wasn't asked. That is because the letter was addressed to him, along with several other heads of state, asking their support for an entreaty to the Chinese government. Even if he had been asked, Obama would not/could not have done it: as a sitting head of state, he can't really sign things in a personal capacity. (The same would apply, despite their less powerful executive roles, to Nobelists Shimon Peres, president of Israel, and Jose Ramos-Horta, president of East Timor.)

On the other hand, in his role as U.S. President Obama did all that the Liu family and Freedom Now could have hoped, in immediately issuing a White House statement congratulating Liu and urging the Chinese government to release him.

Nelson Mandela was hard to reach, for health and logistics reasons. Desmond Tutu himself was (as has been reported) away a prolonged ship voyage for "Semester at Sea" teaching duties and not in a position to make sure Mandela signed on.

Al Gore didn't respond to numerous faxes, phone calls, letters, and messages. The Freedom Now people believe he received their requests, though they can't be sure. In any case they say they never heard back from him.

They didn't even bother asking Henry Kissinger.

The name on the signers' list that most inflames the Chinese government is the Dalai Lama's. Was there any hesitation about including him? The Freedom Now official pointed out that on the morning of the selection, Liu Xia, speaking for her husband, began by thanking three people who had nominated him for the prize: Desmond Tutu, Vaclev Havel, and the Dalai Lama. (PDF of statement here.)

After the jump, a few messages from readers and other links. Then the "mystery of the Nobel letter" is finished here until further notice.

A sampling of mail on this topic. From an American academic:

>>Isn't it also possible that Gore, being asked to sign, checked with the Obama administration first and was told that it would not further American policy goals? Gore was VP recently enough that he might be thought to speak for the administration in a way that Carter would not.

 And shouldn't the Dalai Lama stayed away from this? Won't his presence on the list just make the Chinese government angry and dismiss the whole exercise as an attack on Chinese sovereignty, honor, etc.? Maybe the Dalai Lama should have followed Gore's example. It's one thing for Tutu and Wiesel, et al., to sign, but quite another for interested parties like the Dalai Lama, Gore, and Obama, who also didn't sign.<<

As we know now, those could have been Gore's reasons, but he didn't convey them to Freedom Now. And invoking the Dalai Lama was apparently the Lius' choice. From another reader with a Western name:

>>Given the Chinese government's views of the Dalai Lama, I'm really wondering what good adding his name to an appeal would have. Couldn't that have a negative effect?<<

In the same vein, from a Chinese-American reader:

>>A question that is not easily answered about the 15 past Nobel Peace Prize winners: would it have been better to leave the Dalai Lama on the list of writers or off the list of writers?

I think yes, even though the reason is pretty stupid (in my Chinese-American eyes). If you're looking to catch more flies with honey, you may not want to include the PRC's "jackal clad in Buddhist monk robes." (Eye roll.)<<

Damien Ma has a good analysis here on the Atlantic's site of the longer-term prospect for Chinese political reform. The tragedy, of course, is that nothing would make the Chinese government look stronger or more confident in the rest of the world's eyes than releasing Liu and other political prisoners. Most people, most of the time, go about their lives in China without this kind of political fear or meddling. But many members of the government are still at the stage where they think that only by being extra-tough about dissent will they appear to be in command. In thirty years the country has come a long way, but there are still struggles ahead.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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