So the Nobel Peace Prize for 2010 goes to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. While an improvement over last year’s award to President Obama, I have some serious reservations about this choice. I believe that whatever positive effects year’s peace prize will have on the cause of democracy in China will be outweighed by the negative effects of reinforcing a very unhealthy and sometimes unfair pattern in China’s relations with the Euro-American west.
The awarding of the prize to Liu will put enough attention on him as an individual to lessen his personal suffering. The authorities will probably be extra careful about Liu’s personal health, for example, and be less likely to punish his family and relations collectively. Celebrityhood can become a kind of protection, and that is a good thing. Any development that slows down the outrageously heavy blows of law (and non-law) enforcement in China is a good thing. Nevertheless, not only will the publicity and attention fail to budge the Chinese Communist Party at any systemic level, but the way this story plays out in the West does nothing but strengthen the self-satisfied, self-presumed moral superiority of the West. This is a very bad thing, especially when belligerent conservatives are edging toward power in many western nations, including of course in the USA. Look where self-righteousness and certitude got George W. Bush, about 4400 American soldiers, and a couple hundred thousand Iraqis.
Some of my American leftist friends and acquaintences have jumped right into supporting the cause of freeing Liu Xiaobo. Or at least joining Liu support and protest pages on Facebook. The casual quality of this Facebook “activism” speaks volumes about the problem of superficiality in American activist circles in relation to a political line on China. Without a basic working knowledge of Chinese political history, it is all too easy for Americans to channel their activist impulses into causes based articulated in human rights universalisms.
The document for which Liu and others got punished is actually pretty good about providing historical context. Being Chinese intellectuals, they are sensitive to the historical challenges that led China down the path it took in the first half of the twentieth century. But the solutions they propose are ahistorical. Do the authors and signatories not understand that the simple prescription of periodic elections, for example, is fraught with the problems and contradictions of political histories and national contexts? There isn’t any such thing as a system that makes use of “periodic elections,” because it is never that simple. Elections, no matter where they occur, are the productions of much debate and compromise within particular political circumstances, and are in very few places completely free of controversies themselves.
That is only one problem I see with the document. Another problem is the authors' failure to resolve or even recognize the fundamental contradiction between the desired well-being of the Chinese citizenry–which is supposedly the motivating concern driving this document–and the advocacy of private property rights, including "free and fair markets." Market logics invalidate all but the individual proprietor as the locus of economic progress. So what is to protect the citizenry as a whole? To call this kind of advocacy naive would be putting it generously.
Overall, the language of the document, when it comes to its prescriptions, is far too general. As such, it more or less falls into a set of demands that conform to Western democratic ideals, but gives no attention to the manifold problems and ever more acute contradictions that have emerged in every single society that took those ideals as their starting point for a system of governance.
At the same time, using the language of these ideals leaves aside the more promising analyses of global labor. There are worker movements going on right now in China–young workers in the southern factories, pensioners or former state-owned enterprise workers in the north–that have no meaningful connection to a Western left, but whose fate will have an impact on the economies of the US and scores of other countries. To me, using the (Marxist!) language of labor rather than of individual human rights ("democracy") is the path with more political potential for a global left, a left that circumvents the prevailing pattern of morally-superior and "democratic" West versus a backward and "totalitarian" China.
(You can read a translation of the document by Perry Link here.)
My choice for the prize? If it has to be a jailed dissident, then Leonard Peltier would be the more courageous choice. When using the peace prize to spotlight a Chinese dissident, it’s like that movie Groundhog's Day–going through a ritual we already know, without any way out. As far as the Nobel committee's gesture goes, putting the world’s attention on an American activist would take a lot more guts.