(This column was published in DNA edition dated December 8, 2010.)
At the ceremony in Oslo last year to award the Nobel Peace Prize to US President Barack Obama, China was given a platform to showcase an element of its soft power: the gifted classical pianist Lang Lang was invited to perform at the ceremony to symbolise China’s rise on the world stage.
At this year’s ceremony, days from now, the most powerful symbol of China’s further ascendance, and of the long shadow it casts around this world, will be an empty chair. That’s because this year’s winner, Chinese scholar and campaigner for democracy and human rights, Liu Xiaobo, is serving time in a Chinese jail after being pronounced guilty of “inciting subversion of state power”. A prickly, petulant China has placed even Liu’s wife under house arrest and has disallowed others close to him from travelling abroad to receive the award on his behalf.
Alongside this, Chinese state media are carrying on a high-decibel campaign to vilify both Liu and the Nobel awards institution. Disconcertingly, there is also anecdotal evidence that China-based foreign correspondents are being warned against attempting to meet dissidents in the run-up to the award – with dark hints that they otherwise risk facing delays with their visa renewals.
Even more brazen has been China’s muscular effort to lobby – some would say bully – foreign governments, including India, to boycott this year’s awards ceremony. It has held out warnings of “consequences” at a bilateral level if countries dishonour Official China’s sentiments and send their diplomatic representatives to the ceremony. A handful of countries, which in any case aren’t known for their embrace of the libertarian spirit, have already buckled under Chinese pressure. But India, which in recent times had been walking on eggshells to avoid offending Chinese sensibilities, has confirmed it will attend, and now perhaps runs the risk of facing the fury of a fire-breathing China.
In some ways, the empty chair in Oslo intended for Liu – and the absence of some countries’ representatives at the ceremony – may be interpreted as a symbol of Chinese ‘hard power’ projection, and its capacity to have its way and brazen it out despite some mild but ineffectual criticism from liberal constituencies around the world. China has demonstrated that it is particularly good at leveraging its trade and commercial clout as a coveted market – and diplomatically playing countries against one another.
But it’s just as true that China’s overreach in recent months – in its neighbourhood and around the world – is beginning to face a concerted pushback from countries and coalitions that feel disquieted by China’s assertiveness. As some of the WikiLeaks documents relating to discussions about China reveal, there is an element of borderline tactical coordination about ways to deal with perceived Chinese belligerence in recent years and months. Even an acknowledged “friend of China”, the Chinese-speaking former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, is on record as telling US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that if efforts to get China to demonstrate greater responsibility around the world failed, the US should be prepared to “deploy force” against China.
In that sense, even the empty chair that Liu will never occupy in Oslo commands a moral strength of character that shows up China’s own limitations as a rising power. As US Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman notes in one of his WikiLeaks cables, China may stomp around the world, but it still carries a small stick.
China’s muscle-flexing faces a pushback
When China rules the world…
‘China cannot – and will not – rule the world’
How China ‘punishes’ countries that receive the Dalai Lama
Unhappy China, paranoid China
The two faces of China
‘China’s political stability comes at the cost of freedoms’