9 December 2010
Kerry Brown

Professor Kerry Brown

Associate Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme


The Laureate chair and the balcony where the winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace traditionally stands after the award will, this year, be empty for the first time since 1936. No close relative of the winner, imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, has been able to leave China to represent him. A prize prestigious enough for a sitting US President to come to collect cannot be picked up by a Chinese academic and intellectual - he is still detained in jail.

The anger that the Chinese government has vented on this year's award has been revealing. Firstly, while economic reform and marketisation have continued unabated under the Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao leadership, it is hard to say that this economic engagement has changed the activities of the current political elite in Beijing. For all the economic, social and cultural change in the last three decades, in 21st century China you can still end up serving an 11 year jail sentence for writing the wrong thing.

The second is that this current leadership at least are surprisingly vulnerable to what they see as any attacks on their authority from outsiders. There is a profound sense of historic grievance which will not go away. Lurking underneath the anger at the prize from the political power holders at the top of the communist party is, there seems, deep resentment that the West feels it has any kind of locus to question China's handling of its own internal affairs. The Nobel Prize is the ultimate symbol of western assertions of its monopoly in all the key drivers of modernity. China's engagement in this process has been deep, and had major impact - but now China's elites want to say, loudly and aggressively, that they will take no lectures from the west about how they conduct their own affairs.

In the period since the prize has been awarded, Chinese diplomacy has become crude, bullying and unequivocal. Even academics and scholars who guard their neutrality have been rudely contacted and had veiled threats delivered to them. Governments have been challenged about whether they will attend the ceremony, despite well established protocols to do so. Since the 2008 Olympics, China's international image has plummeted. It now stands in danger of being an untrusted, and unloved major power. That is dangerous for it, and for the world.

Underneath all the recent shouting, however, there is a quieter, and more reassuring strand emerging. News of Liu Xiaobo's award has been surprisingly widely disseminated in China. Younger Chinese distrust the official government rhetoric, and pay less heed to it than outsiders. To them, this award is a challenge, for them to move beyond producing world class dissidents. They have a more international perspective than the generation above them, and greater confidence.

George Orwell said in '1984' that all hope lay with the proles. In modern China, it lies with youth, who, if evidence on blogs is anything to go by, have responded more thoughtfully, and more wisely than their current elderly leadership. For them, like for many outside China, the award for a man whose articles were only ever read by a few thousand people in China, and who powerfully said that China would take a long, unique path to its own political future, raises questions, rather than voices. That is one of the positive things to come out of the last few months.