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Nobel Peace Prize: The view from Hong Kong

Liu Xiaobo's absence speaks to the gap between China, its citizens and the world

HONG KONG — Can a story about Beijing airport's 70 millionth passenger trump the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony? On China's state-owned television, it can.

There's a media blackout about the ceremony in Oslo that honored one of its citizens, albeit one branded as a "criminal": Liu Xiaobo.

State censors also blacked out Western news channels such as CNN and blocked access to news websites. Security personnel cordoned off Liu's apartment in Beijing, where his wife has been effectively under house arrest since the award was announced in October.

But China's intense international campaign to discredit the Nobel Peace Prize appears to have partly backfired. Ukraine, who had earlier been persuaded not to attend the ceremony, reversed its decision after public pressure. And Beijing's counter-award, the hastily created Confucius Prize, easily unravelled into a PR disaster: Its recipient, Taiwan's former vice president and former Kuomintang party chairman, Lien Chan, was a no-show.

"Those people at the Nobel committee have to admit they are in the minority," Jiang Yu, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, defiantly said Thursday. "The Chinese people and the overwhelming majority of people in the world oppose what they do."

The communist party-backed newspaper Global Times in an editorial this week painted China as an aggrieved nation fighting against a Western conspiracy behind the Nobel award: "Most of the acclamation and applause came from Western countries, but more nations and people in developing countries are becoming allies of China."

Some political analysts say China's vitriol against the international community seems to betray the idea it had promoted in recent years of a peaceful China.

"China is getting less sophisticated than two to three years ago when it was promoting harmony in international relations with countries with different political systems. Now it seems China is in a more assertive mood and I would say, damaging its soft power diplomacy," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a China scholar at Hong Kong Baptist University.

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Chinese officials have also attempted to use the patriotic card to rally support against the award, by urging Chinese citizens in Oslo to protest the award. Territorial disputes with Japan have easily sparked anti-Japanese protests in China, as seen in October, but Cabestan says rallying people against a fellow citizen is harder to handle.

"The trouble with Liu Xiaobo and the Nobel Peace Prize is that they're not very self-confident in that issue. Now, they are trying to recreate some kind of divide between China on one hand and Western values on the other, but it's not working that well in that sense that a lot of people in China do not buy that approach to Liu Xiaobo," he said.

From a distance, Hong Kong residents have taken their mainland compatriots' collective lament into the open, gathering at a park next to the city's legislative building today to protest China's continued incarceration of Liu Xiaobo and other dissidents — the only such protest in China today. (Hong Kong is the only Chinese territory that commemorates the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown every year.)

"We are demanding his freedom. We have been sending postcards to the prison to pressure the authorities to release him since the (Nobel) announcement. We are trying to create an international outcry," said Chow Han-tung, one of the vigil's organizers. About 200 protesters attended the vigil.

As the ceremony neared, China cracked down on other dissidents and activists, and prevented Liu's wife and friends (including the outspoken artist Ai Weiwei who was also placed briefly under house arrest last month) from traveling overseas, in case one of them would pop up in Oslo and claim the prize on Liu's behalf.

Liu, a long-time activist and writer, was sentenced to 11 years in prison in December last year for inciting subversion by co-writing Charter 08, a manifesto that called for political reforms to China's one-party system and protection of human rights. The manifesto was patterned after Charter 77 issued by Czech dissidents in the 1970s, calling for an end to Soviet rule.

Last month, Zhao Lianhai, a journalist whose child got sick from tainted milk in 2008 that also sickened tens of thousands of babies across the country, was sentenced to two and half years in prison for "inciting social disorder" by organizing other parents on the internet.

Patrick Poon — vice president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center, a Chinese writers' organization, of which Liu was formerly president — is attending the Nobel ceremony along with four Hong Kong lawmakers. He said Hong Kong activists are taking up what mainland activists are unable to do. "Symbolically we represent people in mainland China who for various reasons were told by the Chinese government to leave or other people who were blocked from leaving the country to attend the ceremony or placed under house arrest."

Liu's award is the second Nobel Peace Prize that has angered China. The last one was awarded to Tibet's Dalai Lama in 1989, the same year of the bloody crackdown against protesters, Liu among them, in Tiananmen Square. Liu said he dedicates the prize to those who died in the crackdown.

This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.

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1 comment on this story

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Dec 12, 2010, 5:09 pm
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Superficial “analysis”, cobbled together from a dozen other better-written and more insightful pieces.

And this it ridiculous: “Hong Kong is the only Chinese territory that commemorates the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown every year.”

“Hong Kong” does not commemorate Tiananmen every year; Hong Kong residents commemorate it (and Hong Kong’s government issues them a permit).

What this piece lacks is a restating of the sine qua non of Chinese foreign policy actions/utterances: that everything China does is in aid of continued domestic political stability. Everything. China doesn’t care what external audiences think. Everything is aimed at the domestic audience. And while there are plenty (millions) of Chinese who are skeptical of the central government’s actions, statements and motives, the majority are not drilling that deep into foreign policy issues.

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