The Nobel Peace Prize has long been beyond the grasp of rational criticism, but I don’t think this year’s award can be let by with just the usual cynical chuckle.
Timothy Garton-Ash says in the Grauniad CiF that the prize “hits China’s most sensitive nerve”. In fact, the offence that the Chinese government has taken is all the result of a misunderstanding. They really do have difficulty understanding the level of the West’s hypocrisy and stupidity.
To the extent the award means anything at all, it is a declaration of intent, by the Nobel Committee and all those that speak in support of it, to overthrow the government of China and replace it with a Western-style government. Garton-Ash explains that Liu Xiaobo “has consistently advocated nonviolent change in China, always in the direction of more respect for human rights, the rule of law and democracy”. It is possible to advocate respect for human rights and the rule of law within Chinese politics, but to advocate democracy is to advocate the destruction of the Chinese government and its replacement with a Western-style one.
To make such a warlike declaration in the name of peace is, of course, just the usual annual joke.
Therefore, it is reasonable for the Chinese authorities to react to the award as a declaration of outright enmity. Their reaction is, nevertheless, wrong. There are two things they do not understand.
The first is that this declaration is purely ritual. In calling for the overthrow of the PRC, the Western intelligentsia have not the slightest idea of any actual program of action; they are merely showing each other how virtuous they are. It is the equivalent of the prayers for the conversion of England that used to be said by Catholic congregations – a creed that had to be regularly affirmed, without the slightest reflection on its actual meaning.
The second is that, because of the lack of such reflection, the self-declared enemies of China actually have no inkling of what they are actually saying. “Democracy”, in the mouth of someone like Garton-Ash, is just something that goes with human rights and rule of law – it is a minor adornment of a political system, that can be increased here and there without killing millions of people.
In Britain, that is indeed what it is – as democracy crept gradually into the British system over a couple of hundred years, the system absorbed and to a great extent neutralised it, producing a comfortable and moderately stable synthesis. That is not what happens when it is introduced in one go. Then it destroys one regime and produces another, usually very short-lived, replacement. Then there is generally a settling down into some kind of civil war. France is the model, not Britain.
The Garton-Ashes and Nobel Committees do not understand that. The thought never even enters their heads. They probably assume that even the CPC leadership itself really wants democracy, but is just a little too cautious and conservative in bringing it in, and needs to be gently chivied by the likes of Liu Xiaobo.
If the Chinese really understood Western politics, they would ignore it and watch the X-factor like sensible westerners do. But it is out of place for the politicians themselves to criticise the Chinese for taking them at their word.
I don’t say all this to attack the idea of reform in China. While I am no great fan of democracy, and while the Chinese regime does have a fairly decent record over the last couple of decades, I recognise that it is bound to run into serious problems as wealth and economic freedom increase the power of rivals to the present establishment. There are already serious power struggles between central and regional governments. It may well be that political collapse is inevitable, and if so, then a somewhat Western-ish democracy would not be the worst possible outcome. Liu Xiaobo might be the nucleus of a future non-terrible government of China, and the alternative to something worse. It’s hard to say. But these aren’t the terms in which the debate is being carried on.