A Peaceful Rise to Glower

China's reaction to the Nobel Peace Prize.

The 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony in Oslo.

On December 16, 2005, Orhan Pamuk found himself in front of a Turkish courthouse, surrounded by a throng of cameramen and angry nationalists with eggs. His crime was treating the Armenian Genocide as fact in an interview. Under a new penal code, “denigrating Turkishness,” as this statement clearly did, was punishable by a prison sentence of six months to three years. But luckily for Pamuk, there were bigger fish to fry.

In October of the same year, the European Union had begun vetting Turkey for admission and Pamuk’s case became emblematic of Turkey’s ongoing tussles with the freedom of speech and other EU membership guidelines. In the face of what Turkey might lose, a little denigration of Turkishness didn’t seem so bad. Pamuk’s case was eventually dropped. The next year, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Unfortunately for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner, The People’s Republic of China isn’t a prospective member of the European Union. On Christmas Day, 2009, Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to eleven years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” ostensibly by co-authoring Charter 08, a document calling for democratic reform in China. The next year, he won the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Liu began his activism (and his criminal record) during the student protests of 1989. For those not familiar with the Chinese government’s rhetoric, “inciting subversion of state power” is China’s “denigrating Turkishness,” and Tiananmen Square is China’s Armenian Genocide.

What makes the events surrounding this year’s Nobel Peace Prize so disheartening is what it portends for future geopolitics. China didn’t surprise the world by denouncing Liu Xiaobo and the Norwegian Nobel Committee; much worse, it confirmed suspicions that the country is as oppressive and obstinate as ever.

Supporters outside the prize ceremony.

China today has undergone a severe rebranding. There are plenty of slogans and catch phrases thrown around: “opening up and reform,” “30 years of economic growth,” “peaceful rise to power,” “harmonious society.” Throw in an Olympic Games and a World Expo. Ogilvy couldn’t have done a better job. Today China (more specifically, the Communist Party which dominates all affairs of state) portrays itself to the world as a cautious, gentle giant, just trying to eke out a place in this topsy-turvy world. In contrast, it portrays itself to its own people as a country bullied and fenced in by more developed nations with unhealthy machinations. It has found allies in the poorer countries of the world, notably in Africa and Southeast Asia, and markets itself to them as a defender of small countries in a world dominated by Western powers.

But the government’s reaction to the Nobel Peace Prize belies its high-minded rhetoric. The knee-jerk belligerence shows that in the last 21 years (the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the 14th Dalai Lama, perhaps the most famous dissident alive), despite cosmetic touch-ups, nothing has changed.

Beijing’s reaction was right out of the intransigent’s playbook. It’s China’s most familiar and, sadly, only foreign policy strategy: denounce, intimidatemarginalize, threaten, all the while acting the victim at home.  Most importantly: never engage the actual issue.

Beijing’s reaction demonstrates two things: one, the government’s inability to separate politics from, well, everything else.  China is a country where politics stains all things and the Party exerts control over every major aspect of social interaction.  The Chinese government cannot imagine a world where decisions are not based in politics. A Nobel Prize winner is not the subjective choice of an independent group of experts (who, admittedly, are appointed by the Norwegian government)—it is a political judgement.

Two, the reaction shows that Beijing does not want to or does not know how to play the foreign policy game as it is currently structured. The rules were created by Western countries and China is late to the game.  So Beijing is trying to create a new narrative. This is exemplified by the establishment of the laughable Confucius Peace Prize and the revisionist land disputes.*  If you don’t agree with history, why not write your own? The Confucius Peace Prize is meant to give “a Chinese perspective on peace.” Indeed, China wants to give a Chinese perspective on everything, and it has a right to. However, China’s perspective is that of the ruling party, not the people, and generally doesn’t include charity or understanding—it is concerned only with the state’s power.

But this intransigence could end up hurting China more than anyone else.  In fairness, the PRC’s rise has been relatively peaceful when compared to the ruthless imperialism of Britain and the United States—China prefers to abuse its own citizens instead of those of other countries.  (Of course a point of debate is what land belongs to China in the first place.)  But by not engaging with the issue, China marginalizes itself.  If Beijing could calmly explain why they see one man as such a danger to the stability of the most populous country in the world, maybe other countries could try and understand.  But by being aggressively opaque, it gains no allies other than the ones it can browbeat into agreeing with them.  Other countries, if they are smart, will take notice. This is what happens when you get on China’s bad side. Character assassination, bullying threats, and attempted marginalization. Smaller countries, especially those in proximity to China, have a tough choice to make: will they place their bets on an arrogant and dwindling America, or an uncaring and unscrupulous China?

Turkey’s treatment of Pamuk shows that if a country still needs things from the international community, it has an incentive to behave. A China that doesn’t depend on the world is frightening but a world that depends on China might be worse. Currently China is coddled and catered to by countries too scared to incur its wrath, America most of all. In return, like a contemptuous king pampered by his ministers, it acts even more abusively.

The government’s constant threats are hardly worthy of a country that says it wants to become part of the international community. But these are the new rules of geopolitics that China is trying to establish.  China wants to change the game and doubtlessly many countries would benefit from a change in the status quo. But by pressuring other countries to do its bidding, China’s reaction to the Nobel Peace Prize suggests that China’s rise will be anything but peaceful.

* I use the word “revisionist” neutrally.  I make no judgement about which country owns the territory.  I merely mean that the islands were claimed by America in the postwar San Francisco Peace Treaty and ceded to Japan in 1971.  Challenging this accepted narrative, whether it is right or wrong, is revisionist.   The article I cited favors Chinese sovereignty, but for Japan’s defense, click here.