Global Policy Studies & International Security

The “Little Emperor”

A word of praise is in order for the Nobel Peace Prize committee.  Two weeks ago they awarded the honor to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident currently serving an 11-year prison term for having the audacity to think that China should afford its citizenry basic human rights and freedoms.  Some say this year’s recipient is a reminder of what the award is designed to represent after what they see as a few dubious selections over the past several years.

Whether that is true or not, Mr. Liu certainly espouses the ideals of the prize.  He has been a tireless advocate of political participation and public expression, with a history going back to the Tiananmen protest of 1989 when he tried to negotiate a peaceful end to the ordeal.  His efforts greatly mitigated the human toll when the tanks eventually rolled in.  He is now serving his third prison sentence for championing the rights of Chinese people.

The committee deserves praise, however, not for the recipient they chose, but for the interference they overcame — no, ignored — in awarding it.  Ten days before the committee was to make its final decision the Chinese government sent a letter of warning to the Oslo committee.  In the letter, China argued that bestowing the Nobel on such a criminal as Mr. Liu would defile the intent of the award.  Furthermore, and this is the key, if the Nobel Committee saw fit to honor Mr. Liu, Chinese-Norwegian relations would be jeopardized.

Beyond the irony of attempting to use thinly veiled threats to influence the awarding of a peace prize, this letter highlights a troubling trend of bully diplomacy on the part of Beijing.

This is hardly the first instance of such attempts by the Chinese to throw around their newly acquired heft, nor even the first in recent weeks.  In the month leading up to the Nobel Committee’s decision, China had locked horns with Japan over the disputed Senkaku Islands. The issue arose after a Chinese fishing vessel ran into a Japanese patrol boat off the coast of the islands, which are controlled by Japan but claimed by China.  The Japanese arrested the captain and were planning to bring him to trial.

China responded by claiming the Japanese had no right to arrest a Chinese citizen (despite his reckless and illegal behavior) and demanded his release.  They also arrested several Japanese tourists for “photographing military installations.”  Additionally, while not officially stopped, Chinese exports of rare earth elements vital to the Japanese technology sector trickled to a halt.  Facing these pressures, Tokyo caved and released the captain.  Subsequently, Chinese authorities demanded an apology from the Japanese.

Such instances of China demanding its way through less than cordial means are not likely to subside, especially as the dispute over the South China Sea intensifies.  For the first time, this year China declared the sea and the hundreds of islands dotting it as a core national interest—along the lines of Tibet or Taiwan.  China is one of several countries claiming the waters, but its claims dwarf the claims of its Southeast Asian neighbors.  Additionally, it has become increasingly hostile to American naval activity in the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea.

China’s economic development has bolstered Beijing’s confidence, especially after watching the United States and Europe languish in the Great Recession while its own GDP continues to climb at breakneck speed.  Its newfound economic prowess has also endowed it with a certain amount of entitlement.  With over 5,000 years of history, the Chinese are a proud people, and many in the country simply see current events as reestablishing historical norms.  To some extent they are.  China is the power, both economically and militarily, in East Asia.  Unfortunately, it has decided to wield that power like a schoolyard bully — through intimidation and sheer force.

Perhaps a better analogy can be found in a common occurrence in modern China.  Since the One Child Policy, there have been an abundance of only children born.  This has been coupled with a rise in per capita income, particularly in the urban areas.  As a result, these children are doted on by not just their mothers and fathers but also by two sets of grandparents.  This creates little emperors — children who have gotten so much they believe they always deserve more and are quite content with their excess.  Today’s China is acting like a little emperor: Throwing fits when it believes it has been wronged or wants something it currently lacks.

China’s response to the Nobel Committee’s selection of Liu Xiaobo followed suit with its bullying, childish warning that preceded the decision.  Beijing summoned the Norwegian ambassador to file a formal complaint and warn of possible further actions.  Additionally, rather than heed the calls for increased access and freedom, China snuffed all Internet and media coverage of the award and put Mr. Liu’s wife under house arrest.  The committee, however, was undeterred by China’s heavy-handed tactics, and for that the Nobel committee deserves due commendation.

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