Nobel Prize Not So Peaceful Lately

When you think of the “Nobel Peace Prize,” don’t you think of lofty ideals? 

Past winners include Jane Addams (1931), Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964), and Mother Teresa (1979).  The Nobel Prize Website provides a full list of winners back to 1901, when the award began.  Here’s an inspiring graphic that you will see if you click on that link:

Lately, the award has been pretty controversial…

In October 2010, Liu Xiaobo (pronounced “Leeyu Show-Boe”) won the Nobel Peace Prize.

As you may recall, President Obama won the prize in 2009, in what was a controversial decision, especially since nominations for the 2009 Prize were due in February 2009, and he’d just been inaugurated in January 2009.  For the president of a country waging two wars — in Afghanistan and Iraq — to win the peace prize seemed a little odd.  Many commentators saw the prize as a criticism of the Bush administration and a celebration of its end.

According to the Nobel website, President Obama received the 2009 prize

for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.

In any case, the choice for 2010 is even more controversial, because Liu Xiaobo is in prison in China.  He has been in and out of prison ever since the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, as you can see from this BBC chart:


Let’s unpack each of these threats:

First, he was a leading activist at the Tiananmen Square protests.  That’s an interesting word choice by the BBC — “protests.”  The Chinese government brought troops and tanks into the famous square and killed hundreds of student protestors.  In some circles, it’s called a “massacre.”  Wikipedia also calls it a “protest”:

By the way, this Wikipedia entry does not show up on the internet in China when you search for the square — all you can get (unless you try to get around the Great Firewall of China) is information about the physical square — the information about the protests and killings is nowhere to be found.

Here’s an article from “Headline News” that gives you more of an idea about how the internet and other forms of media are limited in China today, especially as famous anniversaries and events (like Nobel Prize Award ceremonies, for example) would normally draw people to the internet:


Second, he spoke out against one-party rule in China.  As I explained to my students yesterday when we talked about this, one-party rule is when we vote on who will be teacher, and there’s one candidate — Mr. Goldberg.  Not surprisingly, I win 99% or more of the vote.  Yay me!

And third, he wants a new constitution that guarantees, among other things, an independent judiciary and freedom of speech.  For these “crimes,” he received a jail term of two years, a three-year term in a labor camp, and he’s now serving an 11-year prison sentence because  

he “had the goal of subverting our country’s people’s democratic dictatorship and socialist system. The effects were malign and he is a major criminal”. 

So basically, the Chinese government is upset that the Nobel committee is honoring someone it considers to be a criminal (though I’m not sure what exactly the crime is — how was it that “the effects were malign”?  What did he DO?).  And the Nobel committee is trying to send a message to China that it needs to give its people more rights, along the lines of what Liu Xiaobo is talking about — free elections, freedom of speech, and an independent judiciary to keep a check on the government’s powers.  Here’s a lengthy quote from today’s BBC article (the same one that the chart above comes from):

To the Nobel Committee, Liu Xiaobo symbolises a message it was keen to send to China – that its growing economic strength and power do not exempt it from universal standards of human rights.

On the other hand, China says the committee has chosen a criminal convicted under Chinese law to serve the interests of certain Western countries, our correspondent says.

Liu Xiaobo first came to prominence when he took part in the 1989 protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

He was sent to prison for nearly two years for his role, and has been a critic of the Chinese government ever since.

He was given an 11-year prison sentence in December 2009 for inciting the subversion of state power, a charge which came after he co-authored a document known as Charter 08.

The document calls openly for political reforms in China, such as a separation of powers and legislative democracy.

The Nobel Prize award ceremony is tonight (Friday night), and because Liu Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, is under house arrest, there won’t be anyone to pick up the prize on behalf of the winner.  Apparently, the last time this happened was in 1936.  Here’s a quote from an article in today’s Washington Post:

Nobel committee organizers said he [Liu Xiaobo] would be represented by an empty chair – the first time the award will not be presented to a laureate in person since 1936, when Carl von Ossietzky, a German pacifist jailed by the Nazi regime, was prevented from attending the ceremony.

Another quote from that same article (actually, this is the start of the article) notes that China will be controlling its media to try to minimize the coverage of the prize ceremony tonight:

Chinese authorities displayed growing frustration Thursday with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned intellectual Liu Xiaobo, tightening their grip on activists and blocking some Web sites and broadcasts.

China has decided to created its own peace prize, called the Confucius Peace Prize  — but it’s not quite as well-known as the Nobel Prize.  In fact, its first recipient, a Taiwanese politician, had no idea he had won or what the prize was all about.  Here’s an account from the New York Times from a few days ago.

So we’ll see what happens tonight.  By the way, it’s odd in the first place to have a Peace Prize named for Alfred Nobel, since he made his money in the late 1800s largely by inventing a not-so-peaceful thing — dynamite.  His last will set up the Nobel Prizes so that he would be remembered in a more positive light.

Oh, and can you pronounce Liu Xiaobo’s name yet?  If not, here’s some assistance.  Click on the link below and you can listen to the two sound files.


UPDATE: One of my students sent me this link to a New York Times article describing the award ceremony.   The picture that goes with the article, of Liu Xiaobo’s empty chair, is powerful:


About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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2 Responses to Nobel Prize Not So Peaceful Lately

  1. Pingback: “Empathetic Global Citizenship” unpacked | What I Learned Today

  2. Pingback: “Empathetic Global Citizenship” unpacked | What I Learned Today

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