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When we heard of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize win last week, we quickly reached out to a variety of China Beatniks and asked for either their reactions to the news or links to any writings they had done on Liu in the past. Below are some of the responses we received.

Geremie Barmé, the Australian National University

“China’s Promise” (China Beat, January 2010):

On Christmas Day 2009, as a momentous year of anniversaries drew to an end, the Beijing authorities announced that Liu Xiaobo had been sentenced to eleven years in jail for ‘inciting subversion’. According to media reports, this was the longest term given to any offender accused of this particularly nebulous crime since it was introduced in 1997. Ironically, for the two decades since the tragic denouement of the 1989 mass protest movement that pressed for media freedoms and basic rights Liu’s has been a voice of reason and decency. Like patriots who had agitated for the party to make China a modern and civil nation in the 1940s, activists like Liu, and the thousands who signed the Charter 08, have used peaceful means and public protest to appeal to Chinese authorities to respect their own constitution.

As China continues on its path to become a major world influence, it is important that we remain heedful of the complex realities of China’s society and the varying demands of its citizens. As international criticisms of China’s failure to realize a social and political transformation concomitant with its economic achievement, the Chinese authorities have become increasingly anxious to present their monolith version of Chinese reality to the world as the only truly Chinese story worthy of our consideration. The Chinese Party-state, with the support of many citizens nurtured by a guided education and media industry, is now investing massively in presenting what it calls the ‘Chinese story’ (Zhongguode gushi 中国的故事) to the rest of the world. However, in doing this, it constantly limits and censors the variety of stories and narratives that make up the rich skein of human possibility in China itself. To many it would appear self-evident that no political force can or should claim to represent in its entirety or in perpetuity such human richness.

See also this 1990 essay, “Confession, Redemption, and Death: Liu Xiaobo and the Protest Movement of 1989” (originally published in The Broken Mirror: China After Tiananmen and republished in the March 2009 issue of China Heritage Quarterly).

Anne-Marie Brady, University of Canterbury

It is important to understand that when news like this breaks, “frames” and “tifa” (standardized formulations) are already in place that guide the Chinese media. I doubt there’ll be any big banner headlines in China about the prize (at least not negative ones), as the usual strategy is to downplay such events if they reflect unfavourably on China. And as to what the average person in China will think about it all, apart from select circles in Beijing, most of the rest of the country aren’t quite sure who Liu Xiaobo is, and I doubt they’ll get all stirred up by Charter 08 as a result of the prize. I’ve been on the road a bit this last month and everyone is talking about the economy these days—how tough things are getting as costs go up—to most, Liu represents another era remote from their realities. Personally I think he is a great guy, tough, principled and determined. I met him just before his re-arrest in 1996.

Regarding availability of information in China online about Liu getting the award, here in Wuhan my internet connection closed down for a few minutes when I did a search in in Chinese on his name. When it started again I did a search in Chinese for Nobel Peace Prize and the same thing happened again. It also happened when I switched to, my usual access to Google, though I could search for Nobel Peace Prize in English from there. I’m staying in a foreign expert’s apartment with better than average internet access, though no proxy server. You can never assume that if you can see things in Chinese outside China people inside can access them.

Perry Link, University of California, Riverside

“A Nobel Vision of a Better China” (Wall Street Journal, October 9, 2010):

In 2005, China’s President Hu Jintao issued a classified report called “Fight a Smokeless Battle: Keep ‘Color Revolutions’ Out of China.” The report warned against allowing figures like Boris Yeltsin, Nelson Mandela, Lech Walesa or Aung San Suu Kyi to appear in China. It borrowed the Chinese idiom “blast the head off the bird that sticks its neck out” to recommend that, when troublemakers appear, “the big ones” should be arrested and “the little ones” left alone.

This formula appears to have been put into practice in November 2008. Shortly after Chinese police discovered that people were signing Charter 08 online, the Communist Party Politburo held a meeting at which Charter 08 was officially declared to be an attempt at “color revolution.” Accordingly, Mr. Liu became “the big one” to target.

There is irony here. The other “color revolution” leaders named in the Hu report had strong political organizations behind them: Mr. Yeltsin was a high-ranking Soviet official, Mr. Mandela led the African National Congress, Mr. Walesa led Solidarity, and Ms. Suu Kyi led a political party that had already won a national election.

Mr. Liu, by comparison, was a free-floating intellectual. If he turns out to be a “big one” of the kind Mr. Hu fears, then Mr. Hu can only blame himself for having made him so. By awarding him the Peace Prize, the Nobel Committee and Communist Party have become unwitting partners in producing what China’s democrats and political dissenters have most needed: a leader of transcendent moral stature to rally around.

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Many more commentaries about Liu Xiaobo winning the Nobel Peace Prize have been published since we collected an initial round of readings on Friday. Here’s the latest:

• Jeremiah Jenne writes about “The Nobel Prize and the CCP’s Ignoble Response” at Jottings from the Granite Studio.

• At the New York Times, read a Room for Debate roundtable offering five perspectives on “China’s Unwanted Nobel Prize.”

David on Formosa offers a survey of reactions in Taiwan to Liu Xiaobo’s win.

• Seth Gurgel of the Chinese Law and Society blog explains why Liu’s award inspires both happiness and sadness, and why it reminds him of Beethoven.

• At Global Voices Online, an analysis of Liu’s transformation as an intellectual.

• Listen to Perry Link speak on the award and its potential repercussions for Chinese activism at NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

• At Al Jazeera, Jillian York suggests that Liu is the first “digital” Peace Prize laureate.

• Xujun Eberlein of Inside-Out China considers why Liu has been called both too moderate and too extreme in his activism.

• At the Guardian, Jonathan Watts describes an attempted post-award celebration among Chinese intellectuals and the government crackdown that followed.

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In only a few hours, word will come from Oslo and the world will know whether or not this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner is Chinese activist and author Liu Xiaobo, currently serving an eleven-year prison sentence for “subverting state authority.” Speculation about Liu’s odds has been running at a fever pitch this week, so much so that Irish bookmaker Paddy Power made an early payout to those who had put money on Liu by Tuesday. Authorities in Beijing, however, have made it clear that this is one international prize that China doesn’t want to win.

For more about Liu Xiaobo, his work, and his Nobel nomination, Jeff Wasserstrom interviewed Jean-Philippe Béja of the Paris-based Centre for International Studies and Research. Béja is author of A la recherche d’une ombre chinoise. Le mouvement pour la démocratie en Chine (1919-2004) and “The Massacre’s Long Shadow,” which appeared last year in the Journal of Democracy.

JW: What do you consider Liu Xiaobo’s most powerful essay? Or, to put it another way, if we were to direct our readers to one or two pieces that would give them a sense of his ideas and style of argument, what would they be?

JPB: I would certainly direct them to read “猪的哲学” (“The Philosophy of the Pig”), where he describes how the elites let themselves be bought by the regime after the Tiananmen massacre. It is a very lucid analysis of the social contract proposed by Deng Xiaoping after his Southern tour. Another one is the speech he gave when he received the prize of the 民主教育基金会 (Chinese Democracy Education Foundation), in which he emphasizes one of his most constant positions: by living in truth, it will be possible to change a regime which is based on lies. This is his most Havelian speech, which illustrates his deepest convictions. When many Chinese intellectuals were abandoning ethics in order to be “modern”, Liu Xiaobo always insisted on the value of ethics.

Finally, if your readers want to know more about the way he became the “black horse” of literary circles, they should read the article 危机 (“Crisis”) he published in the 深圳青年报 (Shenzhen Youth Daily) in 1986.

JW: Were you surprised when it became clear how seriously his candidacy for this prize was being taken?

JPB: Yes quite, because in the course of the years, I have noticed that Westerners very rarely understand the value of Chinese intellectuals. But, of course, Central and Eastern Europeans are different, because they have gone through a comparable experience. Václav Havel perfectly understands the situation of Liu Xiaobo, and he knows the courage which is required to stand up as he always did.

JW: Were you surprised that the Beijing government tried to get involved in the Nobel Prize process, or did this strike you as quite predictable, given the things China’s leaders have done in the past (like trying to keep Dai Qing from speaking at last year’s Frankfurt Book Fair)?

JPB: It did strike me as predictable. The Chinese leaders always blast the NGOs or the Western governments who comment on Chinese affairs, accusing them of “hurting the feelings” of 1.3 billion Chinese, but they seize all the opportunities to try and influence their partners on the international scene.

JW: Can you tell our readers something about Liu Xiaobo, as a political figure or simply as a person, since in a recent article in the Guardian you are described as one of his friends?

JPB: I admire Liu Xiaobo’s courage and determination. He is a very mild person, his analyses are always quite rational, and, for example, he has always refused to judge the political situation in function of his personal position. Let me explain. At the time he was followed everywhere by two or three plainclothes policemen, when they prevented him from leaving his home, even to buy food, he would acknowledge the progress that was accomplished, congratulating himself of the greater space for society to express its opinions. Personally, he likes discussions, he can be very tough and we often argued about how to analyse some political situations. But our disagreements never had any consequences on our friendship. Liu Xiaobo is a 东北人 (Northeasterner) and, despite his strong criticism of Chinese tradition, he has a deep sense of 义气 (loyalty).

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Though China Beat contributors come from around the globe, the blog’s editorial team is based at UC Irvine. For that reason, we take special pride in announcing that at last month’s Association for Asian Studies annual meeting, UCI Professor of Anthropology Susan Greenhalgh won the Joseph Levenson Prize for Best Book on China Post-1900. Professor Greenhalgh’s book, Just One Child: Science and Policy in Deng’s China, was published by the University of California Press in 2008, and attempts to answer several questions that have permeated her work as a population specialist during the era of the one-child policy:

Why? Why did China’s leaders adopt a population policy that was certain to fail in reaching its demographic goals while producing so much harm in the attempt? Where did the one-child policy come from? (xii)

In Just One Child, Greenhalgh links the origins of the one-child policy to the work of Chinese missile scientists in the early Deng years, and also demonstrates how reforms during that era were influenced by the allure of scientism, or “the view of science as a panacea for all the nation’s ills” (24). From the AAS citation for Just One Child:

What makes Greenhalgh’s book outstanding is that she insightfully utilizes her case study to address questions of a broader scope. She shows how policy gets made at the top of the Chinese party-state and how Deng reformers thought about policy-making in general. She examines the role in modern policy-making of “scientism”. . . and shows how this had a particular attraction in the immediate post-Mao period. She sheds new light on the circumstances in which intellectuals began to enter the policy-making arena, and also shows the ways Western models (in this case, the Club of Rome’s population/resource projections) influenced Chinese policy. Throughout, she insightfully links her discussions to international discourses in the social sciences. To an unusual degree, Just One Child combines entirely original scholarship, a sophisticated conceptual framework, and rigorous analysis.

Just One Child cover

We’re also pleased to note that UCI now has two Levenson Prize winners on its faculty, as Dorothy Solinger, Professor of Political Science, won the award in 2001 for her book, Contesting Citizenship in Urban China: Peasant Migrants, the State, and the Logic of the Market (UC Press, 1999).


We are healthily skeptical about the newsworthiness of award recipients — prizes don’t, after all, always go to the right people. But a well-bequeathed award can draw attention to an intriguing book or piece of writing that one might have otherwise missed.

In an attempt at a premature 2008 awards wrap-up, here are a few that you might have overlooked.

1. There was consternation from the Chinese state in August and September over the mention that activist Hu Jia might be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. While he didn’t win the Nobel, he was awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament. Hu Jia is now in prison for sedition, but he was under house arrest prior to that. You can view a video that he made during that time here.

2. Noted Sinologist Francesca Bray was part of a team that won a prize (the Sally Hacker Prize) for their seven-volume study Technology in World History.

3. For regular China Beat readers, Susan Mann’s book The Talented Women of the Zhang Family won’t be new; Nicole Barnes reviewed it last January. The book was just awarded the Fairbank Prize (the American Historical Association’s top prize for East Asian history) and earlier this year it was a finalist for the Kiriyama prize.

4. We just recommended Ching Kwan Lee’s new book, Against the Law; it was recently awarded the Sociology of Labor Book Award.

5. We haven’t read this novel, but this summer Chinese writer Yang Yi won a Japanese book prize for a Tiananmen-themed novel (written in Japanese).

6. The New York Times ran an important ten-part series on China and the environment last year, “Choking on Growth” (link to Part I). Now it’s been awarded a Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment.
7. And for those who missed the announcements last spring of the Levenson winners (the book prize given by the Association for Asian Studies for the best pre-1900 and best post-1900 China book, respective), they were:

2008 Pre-1900 Category: Martin J. Powers, Pattern and Person: Ornament, Society, and Self in Classical China (Harvard University Asia Center, 2006)

2008 Post-1900 Category: Sherman Cochran, Chinese Medicine Men:
Consumer Culture in China and Southeast Asia (Harvard University Press,

Neither of these recent winners of the prize have contributed to China Beat (yet), but we’re pleased to see that a list of past Levenson award recipients includes some names that should be familiar to readers of this blog, as they’ve either written for us, been interviewed by us, or had their names show up in the Table of Contents for our forthcoming China in 2008 that was recently posted at the site. To cite just two examples, 21st century winners of the post-1900 prize have included Yan Yunxiang (whose comments on Chinese youth will be featured in the book) and Geremie Barmé (who has contributed to the blog and will be well represented in China in 2008 as well).

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