They would be right. The very language used by committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland when making the announcement was a verbal slap in the face for the country. He was stinging in his criticism, saying China was in breech of its own constitution as well as of international agreements and had to act responsibly. Rarely has the Nobel Committee taken such a hard line with a country. The nearest that comes to it was the 1991 award to Burmese opposition leader Aung San Sui Kyi and then in 2003 when the peace prize was handed to Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi “for promoting democracy and human rights” in Iran. But in both those cases the intended rebuke was not administered with anything like the same force as today. Certainly it would be difficult to imagine US President Barack Obama or any European leader coming out with such ringing criticism of China. It would cause a massive international row.
That may happen anyway. A smarting China is now threatening relations with Norway — unfortunate because the decision was not the Norwegian government’s to make. With the award welcomed by a number of Western governments such as France and Germany, Beijing is more than likely to turn the heat on them as well, for the Nobel Peace Prize is about as damning an international criticism as can be imagined. Not that China is likely to have any respect for a committee that, 21 years ago, gave the peace prize to the Dalai Lama. One thing is, therefore, certain. The award is not going to force Beijing to release Liu. It is going to proclaim all the more loudly that he is just a criminal and that it is a gross interference in its internal affairs to meddle in the matter. If anything, it will make things worse for him.
The Nobel Committee must have known that, but then the decision to award the prize to Liu and take such a provocative stand perhaps says more about it than it does about concerns about human rights in China. There will be many who see, as the real reason for the decision, the Nobel Committee’s desire to salvage its reputation after last year’s controversial award to President Barack Obama. It exposed itself to ridicule with that decision, making itself look lightweight and trivial. (Nor did Obama come out of it well; he should have had the wisdom to refuse.)
It apparently wants to look serious again. But bearing what has happened to Aung San Sui Kyi, still under arrest, such seriousness is not going to have any serious consequences. The real danger is that by honoring wrong persons and causes other than promotion of peace, the committee may rob the Nobel Peace Prize of its prestige and value.