The Nobel committee pulls the dragon’s beard

Philip Bowring
Asia Sentinel

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo was very much an “own goal” for Beijing. Quite likely he would not have won if China had not made a crude and overt threat to the Norwegians that relations would suffer if Liu did get it. The Norwegian committee was thus pushed into showing that it was independent and could not be threatened.

The threat and the subsequent Beijing “outrage” is yet another demonstration, following spats with Japan, India and its South China Sea neighbors, of how China’s global standing is being damaged by outbursts of nationalism.


It is not easy to tell to what extent these reflect a new arrogance stemming from economic success and an excess of foreign praise or reflect a struggle at the top of the Communist Party between a liberal and internationalist group and a conservative, nationalist one.

For sure something is going on. Liu’s award coincided with a visit to Europe by Premier Wen Jiabao during which he made a very liberal-sounding speech about the need for democracy and free speech. This has not been reported in China itself. It seems unlikely that Wen is so disingenuous that he would make such a speech for foreign consumption and deliberately suppress it at home.

As Willy Lam noted in Asia Sentinel on Aug. 30, it appears a rivalry is growing between Wen and China’s leader Hu Jintao. In Shenzhen on Aug. 20, Wen surprised local cadres by appearing to criticize unnamed Chinese Communist Party officials for dragging their feet on political reform, saying that without it “it will be impossible for the goal of economic reform and modernization to be realized.” That has been perceived as a shot at Hu.

Kishore Mahbubani

The Nobel committee did have one foreign critic, self-styled Asian Values guru Kishore Mahbubani, Dean of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Former diplomat Mahbubani complained that the prize reflected western views and that the Nobel committee awarded the prize to Asians who were dissidents. This was just the sort of half-truth that one expects from Singapore apologists for authoritarian regimes similar to their own. It also reflects Singapore’s attempts to appear ultra-Asian while aligning its economic and strategic interests with the west.

The actual list of Asian recipients of the prize since 1970 is: Mohammad Yunus, Shirin Ebadi, Kim Dae Jung, Ramos Horta, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Eisake Sato, Le Duc Tho.

Only one of these – Iranian Shirin Ebadi – could be described as a dissident at the time of the award. Kim Dae Jung was an elected president, Aung San Suu Kyi had won an election — but then had the result overthrown. (Imagine if the British had locked up “dissident” Lee Kuan Yew after his election victory in 1959 and left him to rot in jail for decades as Lee did to his Barisan Sosialis opponents).

Of the others, East Timor’s Horta had made peace with Indonesia and Le Duc Tho had made a sort of peace with the US. The Dalai Lama is no dissident among his own Tibetan people, only to Beijing and its lackeys. He has been the Tibetan peoples’ leader for more than half a century and is also revered by Mongols in neighboring countries. Mother Teresa and Mohammad Yunus were apolitical, one a selfless social worker, the other a great innovator of microcredit. Eisaku Sato was a former Japanese prime minister.

Mahbubani claims that the prize should have gone to Asians like Deng Xiaoping for bringing so many out of poverty. He apparently prefers to forget the Tiananmen massacre and the fact that Deng is dead. Surely a better choice would have been Zhao Ziyang, the man who initiated China’s economic reform when he was in charge of Sichuan, opposed the Tiananmen violence – and paid the price of spending his remaining years under house arrest.

One does not have to be a defender of all Nobel awards – Obama last year is a case in point –or that some people, including Gandhi, who should have won it never did. But Liu fits into good company, which includes former non-Asian “dissidents” such as anti-apartheid leader Albert Luthuli and Polish democracy Lech Walesa as well as the various apolitical individuals and organizations who have also won. The attempt to demean the award to Liu is all too typical of the official Singapore mindset.

Criticism of the west today would be more usefully focused on Afghanistan and Pakistan. The daily woes of the NATO forces are as much due to the state of affairs in Pakistan as to the Taliban in Afghanistan. The recent destruction of dozens of fuel supply tankers is just the most visible evidence of Pakistan’s inability to provide security to NATO supply lines. The war crosses the border but Pakistan gets angry when any of its own people get killed as a result as though civilian deaths are avoidable in such a conflict.

NATO and its equivocal Afghan ally, Mohamed Karzai and his cronies, cannot win in the face of a Pakistan majority which does not want the Taliban but is unwilling to give full support to the US. India does not help either. Its Afghan meddling merely makes Pakistan’s ISI more determined to keep influence over the Taliban.

The war could also only be won by the west if it is prepared to suffer much bigger casualties – which it is not. Yet the US lacks the political will to recognize reality. The Pakistanis created what has become the Taliban monster. Let them deal with it. Instead of reducing El Qaeda threats to western targets, the war is simply adding to the ranks of western-born jihadists.

I am reminded that in 1880 the British Liberal leader William Gladstone won an election partly on the platform that the war that Britain was conducting in Afghanistan was immoral as well as futile. Leading generals mostly supported his decision when he became prime minister to get out and stay out of a country where they were not wanted.

Unfortunately Obama seems to lack the courage to cut knots. Perhaps a landslide defeat in the coming mid-term elections will toughen him up, make him stop listening to pollsters and political strategists with ever changing targets and take some bold decisions – like that nasty Mr Nixon once did.

An occasion presents itself at the G20 meeting scheduled for Seoul on November 11 and 12, hardly more than a week after the US mid-term polls. Between now and then China will allow some further small appreciation of its currency. Host South Korea will pretend that it is not manipulating the won and other countries from Brazil to Malaysia may set up new barriers to reduce pressure for currency appreciation.

But all those measures simply underline how lopsided the international system has become. A US insistence on reciprocity in access to the Treasury bond market would force both China and the US to stop avoiding the inter-related issues of China’s rigged exchange rate and the US low savings rate.

Such a measure would likely push up US bond yields and cause market consternation – as did Nixon’s abandonment of gold convertibility in 1971. But it would be a recognition that global imbalances have for years been unsustainable and that the long they continue the worse the eventual derailment of the system. The 2008 financial meltdown did produce some international cooperation to improve banking regulation and offset the sudden contraction of credit. But almost nothing has been done to alter fundamental imbalances resulting from both rigged exchange rates (particularly by China) and absurdly low interest rates which are leading to the current rush into gold and commodities.

Frankly I am not hopeful of Obama. Not only is he a natural compromiser but appears to lack advisers with either the sort of intellectual muscle which Kissinger gave to the Nixon White House, or the stomach for high-risk moves.

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