Liu Xiaobo and the Nobel Peace Prize

Tomorrow is the day when the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo. (Has it only been one year since Barack Obama received the prize and made his surprising speech? It seems like decades.)

Liu.pngObviously it is deplorable on its own terms that the Chinese government continues to imprison the winner, Liu Xiaobo (left, from Reuters); that it will not allow his wife or other family members or representatives to attend; that it is pressuring so many other countries to boycott the event; and that it is preparing to block news coverage of the award within China. The Chinese central authorities no doubt intend all these as demonstrations of strength. In the rest of the world's eyes, of course, there could be no more dramatic demonstration of weakness and insecurity. As would have been the case if the U.S. government had kept Martin Luther King in prison after his Nobel Peace Prize, blocked all coverage of his award, kept his family under house arrest, pressured other countries not to go to Oslo, etc. And as it was when South Africa jailed Nelson Mandela.

It is not so much deplorable as sad that the government has* Chinese groups have ginned up a last-minute counter-Nobel "Confucius Peace Prize," and awarded it to a friendly Taiwanese politician who had no idea what it was about or whether he should accept it. I am all in favor of continued harmonious interaction between Taiwan and the mainland, but the award illustrates the principle I discussed in this article: the Chinese authorities' frequent cluelessness about what will seem persuasive and admirable in the rest of the world's eyes. It so evident, from outside, that China could have increased its worldwide "soft power" tenfold if it had released Liu and his family -- or, if it had not have jailed him in the first place. Of course it doesn't look that way to the security forces in Beijing.  (* It's not clear that the government officially had anything to do with this.)

I know it doesn't advance the argument to say any of this, but on the eve of the ceremony Liu's situation should be as widely mentioned as possible.

Extra resources: the unstoppable team at NMA in Taiwan has put together two CGI versions of the prize story, this earnest one about Liu and the Nobel, and this more fanciful one about the Confucius award, complete with NMA's trademark armed, violent giant pandas. Also, the PEN American center has a collection of Liu's essays here, including "The internet is God's present to China" (worth reading in the Wikileaks era) and "Authoritarianism in Light of the Olympic Flame."

South African officials eventually looked back with regret on the years in which they jailed Mandela; while racial inequalities are still with us in America, even Glenn Beck pays honor to Martin Luther King. Let's hope Liu and his family live to see the day when official China can look back with regret on its decisions at this time.

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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.

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