Bryan Mukandi
Bryan Mukandi

Why Liu Xiaobo shouldn’t have been awarded the Nobel

Last week in an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Thorbjorn Jagland, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, defended the awarding of the Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

Asserting that “international human-rights law and standards are above the nation-state”, that “ideas of sovereignty have changed over time” and that “the world” has moved from nationalism to internationalism, Jagland stands by the committee’s decision. As he rightly points out:

If China is to advance in harmony with other countries and become a key partner in upholding the values of the world community, it must grant freedom of expression to all its citizens.

But one must ask, to which world is Jagland referring? What are its values? How could such a “world community” have somehow left behind the inhabitants of the world’s most populous state? And given that Jagland believes China ought to be “proud that it has become powerful enough to be the subject of debate and criticism”, can we assume that there are other states, smaller than China, that somehow find themselves outside the bounds of Jagland’s “world”?

In After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre wrote that there are no such things as human rights, “and belief in them is one with belief in witches and unicorns”. My understanding of that statement is not that there are no obligations members of a community owe each other by virtue of that membership, but the very opposite. That is, to quote MacIntyre again, the obligations that a community places on its members “only come into existence at particular historical periods under particular social circumstances”. It is therefore noteworthy that in making a case for the promotion of human rights in China, Jagland’s historical anchors are the American Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The world community to which he refers is in reality that part of the world that is governed by the precepts of liberalism. It is the West. The community that has, over time, come to articulate the obligations members owe one another in the form of human rights, largely informed by Kantian ethics.

China is not part of that tradition. Nor are the majority of the world’s inhabitants. Jagland is of course correct to note that were China to “advance” to a point whereby a Kantian framework of obligations were largely adopted, it would slot neatly into his world community. Only that would not be advancing in “harmony”, but adaptation by means of conformity. Therein lies the problem. Ultimately, Jagland’s defence is that China ought to conform to the standards of liberal democracies, which he views as embodying some sort of moral norm. Were I Chinese, I too would be offended by that proposition.

I thing Jagland conflates two separate, if related issues. The first has to do with the internal workings of Chinese society. The idea that the concept of sovereignty is a relic of the 17th century only makes sense from a tradition to which China does not belong. Even if it were incontrovertible that adoption of a human-rights based system would be better for the country, it must still not be imposed on them. History, including China’s, is littered with examples of benevolent people doing incredible harm in the name of the best interests of some other group. The path to hell really is sometimes paved with good intentions.

Then there is how China relates to the so-called “world community”, or rather how that community relates to China. The sort of meaningful dialogue that leads to introspection and re-evaluation, to my mind, is most likely to occur between equals. That is not to say that any one group need necessarily view another as being of equal moral standing. But if dialogue with that other is going to be meaningful, there needs to be the assumption of equality of capacity to think, to believe, and to desire to live in a way borne out of those thoughts and beliefs. At an institutional or governmental level, that presupposes enough humility to acknowledge that one’s beliefs may be rejected by the other, either through an inability to fully comprehend ideas embedded in a different context, or just plain disagreement. There is not much else that can be done by those who wish to stand in solidarity with people like Liu Xiaobo. Any more, and we edge dangerously towards colonialism and conquest.

As a person who, with the Nobel Committee believes that “it is a tragedy that a man is being imprisoned for 11 years merely because he expressed his opinion”, what really disappoints me is that the awarding of the Peace Prize seems to fall foul of even Kantian ethics. In using the award as a stick with which to beat China over the head, albeit with good intentions, the committee appears to have used Xiaobo as a means to an end, rather than as an end in himself. In so doing, they have done no favours, either to Xiaobo, nor I suspect to his country’s internal debate on whether there is merit in seriously considering the human-rights discourse.