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Nobel and China: In the footsteps of Nazi Germany?

Analysis: Drawing a line from Liu Xiaobao to Hitler. No, really.

Liu Xiaobo, Nobel Prize
A demonstrator wears a mask of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo during a protest in front of the Chinese Embassy in Berlin on Dec. 10, 2010. (Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON — Predictably, Beijing has unleashed a PR firestorm against the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to democracy advocate Liu Xiaobao. Amid the noisy rhetoric, party officials make one point that appears valid — at least on the surface. 

As the (official) China Daily points out, “According to [Alfred] Nobel’s wishes, the Peace Prize should be awarded to those who ‘shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.’”

Liu, the China Daily argues, doesn’t fit the bill.

Indeed, Liu is China’s most prominent pro-democracy figure. He’s a professor, a literary critic and a veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests who has been repeatedly imprisoned for promoting human rights.

In 2008, the year China wowed the world with its Olympic coming out party, Liu was a lead author of Charter 08, a manifesto calling for peaceful political reforms in the People’s Republic. It declared that China’s governing system had become “backward to the point that change cannot be avoided,” and called for basic freedoms: expression, assembly, worship, an independent judiciary and multi-party elections.

Signed by more than 10,000 people, Charter 08 has become the country’s largest democracy movement since Tiananmen Square. Although Charter 08 was by no means a call to arms, in 2009 Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison for subversion.

As the China Daily points out, not even Liu’s most ardent supporters would argue that he has concerned himself with reducing standing armies, holding peace congresses or working “for fraternity between nations.”

So is Liu disqualified by technicality? How can an activist campaigning against his own government be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?

The same question arose in the mid-1930s, after Adolf Hitler took power in Germany.

Before then, the committee largely hewed to the letter of Alfred Nobel’s will, granting the award to people working for disarmament and peaceful relations between states, according to an essay by editor Oyvind Tonneson.

That literal interpretation of Nobel’s wishes changed when the prize was awarded to Carl von Ossietzky, a German journalist and anti-Nazi activist. Ossietzky had been imprisoned for revealing Germany’s illegal military buildup. Whether to grant the prize to Ossietzky, a domestic activist, was such a controversial issue that in 1935 the committee essentially punted, declining to name any Nobel Peace Prize winner. The following year, it retrospectively granted the 1935 prize to Ossietzky.

During that highly charged historical moment — in the midst of the Great Depression, with Mussolini’s Fascism gripping Italy and right-wing radicalism rising in Spain — the Nobel committee recognized the need to use its prestige “as a protest against unwarranted and intolerable political injustice,” as a contemporary Nobel adviser put it.

“Ossietzky’s prize was among the most controversial — and the most important — awards in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize,” writes Tonneson. It was also precedent-setting: in the post-World War II era, other prizes have gone to courageous figures fighting the injustices perpetrated by their own governments.

These include Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi (1991), the Soviet Union’s Andrei Sakharov (1975), and Martin Luther King Jr. (1964). The prize has also been expanded to recognize individuals who have struggled against poverty, such as Mother Theresa (1979) and microfinance innovator Muhammad Yunus (2006).

It’s hardly surprising that in its century of existence, the Nobel jury has found it necessary to evolve. And through the lens of history, it's clear that the committee was right that Ossietzky, a domestic activist, was fighting a critical battle for international peace.  

In explaining the 2010 award, Nobel chairman Thorbjorn Jagland compared Liu Xiaobao to Soviet laureate Andrei Sakharov: “If Soviet leaders had listened to [Sakharov], what followed could have been very different. China is probably now at a similar turning point, and if it is able to develop a social market economy together with full civil rights, it will have a tremendously positive impact on the world. If not, we will all bear the consequences.”