An Absence Louder Than Words

What Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize says about modern China.

China, we are often told, is America’s greatest rival, destined to overtake the U.S. as the world’s preeminent military and economic powerhouse, if it hasn’t already. But how to square this forecast of a glorious Chinese future with the pathetic reality on display this week – that of a rising superpower cowering before one man?

The man in question is of course Liu Xiaobo, the jailed dissident who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this week in absentia. A poet and literary critic, Liu is currently serving an 11-year prison sentence for “subversion.” His crime? He is the co-author of “Charter 08,” an appeal for non-violent political and human-rights reform inside China.

It’s a testament to the inherent instability of China’s authoritarian system that it considers a 54-year old poet such a grave threat. In anticipation of Liu’s award this week, the Chinese government blocked news stations like BBC and CNN from broadcasting and shut down websites. Police stepped up repression against dissidents, tightening controls on protest. Special care was taken to isolate Liu’s relatives, who might have received the award on his behalf. His wife, Liu Xia, is reportedly being kept under house arrest. The result was that the Nobel Prize was not handed out for the first time in 74 years. An empty chair and a photograph of Liu were the lone signs of the honoree’s presence.

Yet the symbolism of Liu’s forced absence was powerful enough. For all of its much-hyped technological progress, modern China cannot abide a man who posts his opinions on the internet. Despite its massive military buildup, the country must marshal its forces to silence the supporters of a man who preaches non-violence. Even as it aspires to be a major player in international affairs, China treats a single prize as a mortal challenge to its global might. If this is a glimpse of the Chinese future, it is a revealing one.

It is rare that the Nobel Prize committee exhibits moral clarity. All too often it has bestowed the honor on either those who did not actually deserve it (Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter, Al Gore) or on those who made a mockery of its underlying principles (Yaser Arafat). In Liu Xiaobo, the committee has found a worthy recipient, a point creditably conceded by President Obama, who observed that Liu was “far more deserving of this award than I was.”

Locked in his prison cell, Liu Xiaobo did not get a chance to deliver his message about the internal weakness of China’s political system. But in their determination to keep him silent, Liu’s oppressors made the point for him. Until he can walk free, China’s self-assured claims to global leadership must be dismissed as mere posturing.

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