The Chinese government's response to the Nobel Peace Prize awarded in absentia to Liu Xiaobo brings new meaning to "reactionary." The government's sheer vitriol and bullying of other nations not to attend the Oslo award ceremony highlights a white-knuckled clinging to power. The lesson of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize is that symbolism matters to power and influence.
Many see authoritarian China as the new global model for economic development, amidst the United States' and advanced industrial democracies' economic troubles. Yet if the Chinese government were so sure that autocracy can be sustained, why the shrill response to humble Mr. Liu?
That Chinese government's reaction has surely only amplified for the Chinese people the credibility of Liu and the peaceful democracy petition he champions, Charter 08.
The ceremony was noteworthy for its empty seats, especially those for Liu himself or any relative to be permitted by the winner's country to travel to Oslo to receive the award (the first time since Nazi Germany prevented a dissident from attending to receive his prize in 1936).
Symbolism matters in the responses of other world leaders too. So the empty seats at today's ceremony, reportedly including those of representatives from U.S. allies Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, as well as the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, speak volumes.
Liu's cause represents universal values, not just Western ones. That Pillay elected not to attend is a failure to stand behind the values of the UN's Charter and its Universal Declaration of Human Rights. China voted for the declaration and signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but flouts their principles by imprisoning one slight man for publishing articles calling for peaceful change. The Chinese government also kept Liu's wife, Liu Xia, under house arrest and detained Liu's fellow activist and Charter 08 signatory, Zhang Zuhua, the day before the Nobel ceremony.
The response of last year's Nobel Laureate is as important. After the award was announced and again today, President Barack Obama admirably issued statements calling for Liu's release. Likely placing priority on eliciting cooperation from Chinese leaders on issues like the global economy and a bellicose North Korea, the 2009 laureate had not highlighted Liu's case publicly before he received the award. That was a missed opportunity. The U.S. government ought to employ the Google test. If it is less forward-leaning on promoting freedom of expression in China than a company seeking to make a profit in China, then something is amiss.
A successful long-term strategy to encourage the Chinese people's own efforts--like Charter 08--and propel the Chinese state to change and act like a stakeholder in international rule of law requires not just private diplomacy. It requires consistent public diplomacy.