A Nobel Schism

Madeleine De Leo provides an insight into the danger of the Nobel Peace Prize becoming a Western political tool.

October last year the Nobel Peace Prize, wrapped in political controversy, sparked claims of a degeneration into ‘political theatre’, leading to a public relations disaster. Liu Xiaobo, a 54 year old Chinese human rights activist, was awarded the inaugural Nobel Prize for Peace, for a lifetime dedicated to promoting democracy and human rights within China; providing fuel to the fire for anti-China dissidents across the world, and reigniting the ideological divide between the East and the West, reminiscent of Cold War days thought to be long over.

Liu Xiaobo now stands as the first Chinese citizen to be awarded the Nobel Prize of any category, and the fourth to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while incarcerated. Indeed, no one was allowed to accept the award, as Xiaobo remained in prison, and his wife Liu Xia was placed under house arrest in her home in Beijing. The committee applied what has become known as the ‘empty chair’ policy, whereby the prestigious award is placed upon the recipient’s empty chair in his or her absence; a bold symbol of recipient’s plight.

The ‘empty chair’ policy has been applied very rarely in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize. China now joins an infamous list of regimes that the Nobel Prize Committee has imposed this policy on, namely Nazi Germany, the old Soviet Union, Poland under martial law, and Burma. China now stands in history to be compared with these savage dictatorships, of which modern China is arguably nowhere near comparable.

It appears that while China apparently has so far been incapable of producing winners of the Nobel Prize for Science, Economics or Literature – it can certainly produce exceptional dissidents.

Within months, Liu Xiaobo escalated into a dominant figure in the Chinese dissident movement; the response within China was an immediate proliferation of pictures of the infamous empty chair throughout Chinese proxy social network sites, such as Twitter and Facebook. Publication of such images were immediately banned by the Chinese government, functioning within a broader tightening of Chinese censorship in response to this perceived attack on China’s legitimacy and authority.

The Nobel Prize became a kind of ideological weapon in this context, a form of intellectual containment of rejection that has been used by the West in the past, and is evidently still being used to punish and humiliate its rivals. It is no wonder claims of ‘Cold War thinking’ arose immediately after the award ceremony, as calls for displays of loyalties by China to other countries to boycott the ceremony materialised in 16 of the 65 ambassadors invited to the ceremony foregoing their attendance, following China’s lead.

There really was no easy way out of this public relations disaster, and the result was an ugly display of loyalties, marring the ceremony, and politicising the entire process.  Perhaps China should have done what Iran did when in 2003 the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Iranian human rights campaigner Shirin Ebadi, a former Iranian lawyer and human rights activist, and founder of the Iranian Centre for the Defence of Human Rights. In this case, Iran first complained about the grave insult and gross attempt to humiliate the Government, and then sent in the country’s ambassador to sit in the front row, applauding – a feeble and final attempt to defuse what had become a public relations disaster.

However, realistically, there was never any possibility of China following such a precedent and allowing a representative to collect the award. The outcome of awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo could have been predicted from the very onset, and in recognising this, we are left with the truth behind the matter, that this was a particularly politically charged award, designed to provoke China, and encourage anti-China dissidents.

It is however, a grave injustice to imply by this argument that Liu Xiaobo may be unworthy of the Peace Prize. This writer believes strongly that he was a worthy recipient, and would rather like to draw attention to the nature of the award itself. That is, the Nobel Peace Prize is an inherently politically charged award, and thereby susceptible to the ebb and flow of Western politics and philosophy. This prize has therefore always held the potential to degenerate into a mere political tool of the West.

We are left with a difficult question, and one which unfortunately cannot be answered today, which is how do we draw the line, and how do we prevent this degeneration into a political tool? While we may believe it to be appropriate to award Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize, does the fact that this particular award was so inherently provocative detract from the legitimacy of the ceremony and perhaps from the institution itself?

Political tool or not, the Nobel Prize for Peace remains the strongest recognition of a life dedicated to promoting a better and more peaceful world. How we may define ‘peace’, and how we may therefore define the path towards such a reality is inherently subjective, and as such the Nobel Peace Prize will always reflect, in some way or another, current Western values.

The reaction following the 2010 Nobel Prize for Peace was in no way surprising; what may have been more surprising for some, is that this ideological divide between the West and the East is as pertinent as ever. Though the Cold War is over, this mentality continues to arise, as the West attempts to impose its ideology on the rest of the world.


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