On Oct. 8, word came from Oslo that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize went to Dr. Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident currently incarcerated by his government, who has been in and out of jail since his participation in the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Liu was stripped of all political rights by his government, and he likely has no idea that he was named a laureate. The award will reenergize and further legitimize the struggle against human rights violations in the world’s most populous country. His cause, therefore, deserves more than the handful of media cycles that it received right after the announcement with the talking heads weighing in briefly and moving on.
The Nobel Committee has taken a strong turn in tone since bestowing last year’s award upon President Barack Obama, then a fledgling and overexposed actor on the world stage with two wars and an Afghan troop escalation under his belt. In honoring Liu, the Nobel Committee has returned to its cause of developing peace and justice and supporting those who suffer in the pursuit of them. The Nobel Peace Prize is among the highest honors a person can receive, and it is a symbol of moral righteousness and legitimacy. Perhaps even more importantly, though, it is the world’s largest spotlight, a chance to draw attention to and catalyze dialogue about a cause.
Oslo is at its most effective when it is using the Nobel Prize to draw attention to important causes and injustices that could otherwise fall through the cracks. Last year’s honoring of Obama was a misguided ploy to celebrate a politician and try to influence the direction of geopolitical relations by publicly pressuring the sitting president of the only remaining superpower. President Obama was the first to tell us that he had no business winning the Peace Prize. His body of work had barely begun, and he inherited two wars in which we were hopelessly entangled. The award drew widespread criticism from all corners and forced the president to accept an award in spite of the irony of awarding a peace prize to a wartime president. Unlike Liu, Obama’s cause needed no extra spotlight.
Liu is certainly deserving of his award. He is a poet and literary critic who was a professor at Beijing Normal University when the Tiananmen Square student protests marked a boiling point in Chinese civil discontent. He was staunchly non-violent and probably prevented further violence during the demonstrations. As a political dissident, he is currently serving his fourth stint in jail, this one an 11-year sentence for spreading subversive writing. His crime was supporting the Charter 08 movement, which called for greater human rights, freedom of expression, and free elections. The Chinese government quickly arrested him and sentenced him to 11 years in prison after a two-year trial.
In his letter nominating Liu for the award, Princeton Professor Kwame Appiah quoted Nobel laureate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “For an intellectual thirsty for freedom in a dictatorial country, prison is the very first threshold. Now I have stepped over the threshold, and freedom is near.”
Another Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, was imprisoned by her own government for dissidence in 1991 when she was honored. Her opposition party, National League for Democracy, had taken the majority in Parliament the year before, but she was placed under house arrest. Since then, she has spent 14 of the past 20 years under house arrest. An international campaign for her release has pressured the Burmese government to announce her release next month, when she will be able to organize her party. Her Nobel Prize surely helped keep the international focus on facilitating her release, and hopefully Liu’s will serve a similar purpose.
The Chinese government is infuriated by the award. They have blocked all CNN and BBC reports of the announcement and ramped up internet censorship of sites pertaining to Liu. They have even stated that this could deteriorate Sino-Norwegian relations. Even if Liu does not know of all that is going on in his name, he would surely be proud of the completely non-violent way in which the world is focusing on and condemning Chinese civil rights abuses. His award can serve to draw further worldwide attention and scorn to the oppressive government that imprisons him.
Samuel N. Adams '14 lives in Thayer Hall.