The Nobel Committee's decision to award Chinese dissident and jailed political activist Liu Xiaobo its 2010 Peace Prize (Reuters) may embarrass China's leaders in the short term but offers them a fresh chance to push ahead with much-needed political reform over the long run. Whether they can seize this opportunity will depend on their ability to look past the moment and reflect on the broader implications. A "lessons learned" session in Zhongnanhai should yield at least three new understandings of the need for change.
First, the world seeks great powers that espouse and live up to the great ideals about the human condition and human rights. Many countries have learned and transformed as a result of the leadership of individual dissidents who became Nobel Laureates: Lech Walesa in Poland, Desmond Tutu in South Africa, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in the Soviet Union, and Kim Dae Jung in South Korea are just a few of the world's such catalytic forces. The United States had its own such transformative moment with Nobel Peace prize winner Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s. China now has Liu Xiaobo.
Second, bullying backfires. Efforts by Chinese officials to dissuade the Nobel Committee from awarding Liu the prize by threatening Norway and committee members were foolish, if not downright embarrassing. Obviously, their threats did not produce the desired result and only served to underscore the need for more political change in China.
Finally, what your own people say matters. Liu Xiaobo's win has prompted celebrations in the streets of Hong Kong and Beijing and a lot of excited chatter on Chinese websites and Twitter. There is appetite for change at the top as well. Premier Wen Jiabao has spent much of the past six months calling for political reform, including in a sit- down with CNN talkshow host Fareed Zakaria, in which Wen declared, "I believe freedom of speech is indispensable for any country, a country in the course of development and a country that has become strong. . . I believe and all the Chinese people have such a conviction that China will make continuous progress and the people's wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible."
Thus far, China has simply condemned the Nobel Peace Prize decision, stating, "Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who has been sentenced by Chinese judicial departments for violating Chinese law." Awarding the peace prize to Liu "runs completely counter to the principle of the prize and is also a blasphemy to the peace prize." No one expected Beijing to be happy about the decision. But much of the world, particularly within China itself, now hopes Beijing will gain from it.