Liu Xiaobo and his Nobel peace prize

by Yew-Chaye Loo

Liu Xiaobo, the renowned Chinese writer and human rights activist, was awarded the Prize in 2010. Image: Flickr / Utenriksdepartementet UD Wednesday, 13 July 2022, will mark the fifth anniversary of the passing of China’s human rights activist, Liu Xiaobo. The controversy surrounding his Nobel Peace award and his death are revisited.
The Nobel Peace Prize is one of five awards created in 1900 on the last will and testament of the Swedish industrialist, inventor, and armaments manufacturer, Alfred Nobel. The other four are for Chemistry, Physics, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature.
Since December 1901, the Peace Prize has been awarded annually to those who have “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses” – or deeds akin to these criteria. The award ceremony is held annually in Oslo, Norway.
Liu Xiaobo, the renowned Chinese writer and human rights activist, was awarded the Prize in 2010 “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”. Before that, he was incarcerated twice by the Chinese Government for various alleged anti-government activities: from 1989 to 1991, and again in 2009 for 11 years.
It was obvious that the Peace Prize was awarded to Liu as a snub to China for jailing this vociferous dissident.
The well-known Australian “translator, essayist and novelist”, Linda Jaivin, was an intimate friend of Liu. She has written a fair piece for The Monthly (12/2010-/2011) on Liu and some of his deeds. Entitled “A Nobel Affair” and published soon after the 2010 award, the essay provides a host of insightful information unavailable in other works on Liu’s life and times. Jaivin’s revelation is invaluable in knowing the man and assessing his worth or otherwise as a Nobel Peace Laureate.
On China’s immediate response to the award, Jaivin wrote:
“The government of China reacted furiously to the announcement: awarding the Nobel to a ‘criminal’ … was ‘a complete violation of the principles of the prize and an insult to the Peace Prize itself’.”
China’s refutation is literally correct since “non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights” does not have much to do with “fraternity between nations”, “abolition or reduction of standing armies” or indeed “promotion of peace”. After all, Mahatma Gandhi did not receive the Prize despite being nominated five times between 1937 and 1948. Gandhi’s unrelenting, non-violent struggles from 1915 to 1947 had led to the liberation of over 400 million Subcontinent people from Britain’s colonial rule.
Gandhi’s achievements far exceeded Liu’s deeds. Further, the Mahatma was jailed 11 times and spent in total six years and 10 months in prison. Yet, his nominations ended in failure every time. All this shows but one reality: the subjective application of the criteria in selecting a Nobel Peace Prize awardee. On top of that one also cannot preclude political considerations. The British Empire then was not a force to be slighted. By contrast, China has been habitually maligned by the West for its “human rights violations”.
On Liu’s peculiar conduct, Jaivin wrote inter alia:
“Occasionally Xiaobo managed to scandalise just about everyone. In 1988, while passing through Hong Kong, then still a British territory, he remarked that what China required for real, progressive change was ‘300 years of colonialisation’”.
That was a treacherous remark in view of the lingering humiliations that China sustained following the two Opium Wars.
Then, came the most damning of all about Liu’s idiosyncrasy:
“I imagine that his extravagant 2003 praise of George W Bush’s War on Terror and the Allied invasion of Iraq (‘Never in the history of mankind has there been a war to eradicate tyranny that can compare with the war to overthrow Saddam in the speed with which it was launched, the civilised manner in which it was fought and the straightforwardness of its victory!’), support he reaffirmed as late as 2006, similarly flusters some of his supporters in western liberal circles.”
His praise of Bush’s illegal invasion of Iraq and its disastrous aftermath sounded more like that of a pro-George W bigot than a then future recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Liu was rewarded “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China”. Let see what Jaivin wrote on this subject:
“As a frequent visitor to mainland China since 1980, I’ve been witness to nearly the entire reform era. I’ve seen phenomenal and widespread improvement in people’s material wellbeing, job satisfaction, personal and social freedoms. Friends who used to ask me to bring them shampoo, cooking oil and even green vegetables from Hong Kong now take me out to restaurants I can’t afford. … And whereas, back in the day, travel abroad was a fantasy for most, today’s Chinese urban white-collar workers may holiday on (Queensland’s) Gold Coast.”
China, it seems, was not sitting on its hand by any means about promoting human rights for its citizens. Maybe China knew better than Liu.
Liu was not permitted to leave China to attend the 10 December 2010 ceremony in Oslo to receive the Prize in person. Neither was his wife, Liu Xia, but his “Nobel Lecture in Absentia” was delivered by Liv Ullmann, the notable Norwegian actress and film director.
Unexpectedly, Liu had some elaborate praises for the Chinese legal officials and police officers who interacted with him. He explained:
“Although I continue to maintain that I am innocent and that the charges against me are unconstitutional, during the one plus year since I have lost my freedom, I have been locked up at two different locations and gone through four pre-trial police interrogators, three prosecutors, and two judges, but in handling my case, they have not been disrespectful, overstepped time limitations, or tried to force a confession. Their manner has been moderate and reasonable; moreover, they have often shown goodwill.”
This is a significant rebuttal to the frequent Western criticisms of China’s legal process and alleged police brutality.
Liu went further:
“… This style of management allows detainees to experience a sense of dignity and warmth, and stirs their consciousness in maintaining prison order and opposing the bullies among inmates. Not only has it provided a humane living environment for detainees, it has also greatly improved the environment for their litigation to take place and their state of mind. I’ve had close contact with correctional officer Liu Zheng, who has been in charge of me in my cell, and his respect and care for detainees could be seen in every detail of his work, permeating his every word and deed, and giving one a warm feeling. It was perhaps my good fortune to have gotten to know this sincere, honest, conscien­tious, and kind correctional officer during my time at Beikan (or the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau’s No. 1 Detention Centre).”
Note that Liu referred to “detainees” which means he was not a special case or the only one who enjoyed such benign treatments. Finally, he proclaimed:
“It is precisely because of such convictions and personal experience that I firmly believe that China’s political progress will not stop, and I, filled with optimism, look forward to the advent of a future free China. For there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme… ”.
If it was Liu’s firm belief that China would soon be as liberal and democratic as other countries, why he should work against it rather than helping to expedite the transformation. That is a puzzlement.
In early July 2017, news about Liu heated up again in the media. This time he was reported to be seriously ill with terminal liver cancer in a Shenyang hospital specialised in liver cancer treatment. In the week starting the 9 July, China’s media also confirmed that his condition was critical, and all efforts were being made to sustain him. Sadly, his passing on 13 July 2017 was reported in Australia the following day, 14 July 2017. He was aged 61.
Needless to say, any premature death is unfortunate. In Liu’s case it was a good life wasted. He could have lived fruitfully at the forefront in helping expedite China’s transformation that he himself recognised. But instead, he chose to fight a futile war against an authority that does not subscribe to “human rights” as defined by the West. That was truly regrettable.
Yew-Chaye Loo is Professor Emeritus at Griffith University where he last served as the Sciences Group’s Internationalisation Director. Born a Malayan Chinese he received his education and had worked in Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Scotland before migrating to Australia. In June 2013, he was appointed Member of the Order of Australia “for significant service to civil and structural engineering”.