China, Norway and the continuing Peace Prize row

So far, this blog has looked at coverage of his year’s Nobel Prizes, but there’s been a notable lack of coverage for one prize that is worth highlighting here.

While news spread far and wide of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkul Karman for “their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”, full marks to The Atlantic for noticing that the Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, only ran a three-paragraph brief on the news. Other major Chinese sites didn’t cover the news at all (see here, here and here).

If you recall, last year’s Peace Prize went to imprisoned dissident Chinese writer and human rights advocate Liu Xiaobo. Neither Liu nor his wife, Liu Xia, were allowed to attend the prize ceremony last December in Oslo — the medal placed on an empty chair providing one of the most defining images of last year’s awards.

Any idea the Peace Prize Committee had in their Award Ceremony speech that highlighting the connection between human rights and peace would provide “a prerequisite for the “fraternity between nations, of which Alfred Nobel wrote in his will” has not come to fruition. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Chinese officials blasted the Nobel committee for awarding the prize to a convicted man who they say was trying to subvert the Chinese government. The Confucius Prize was set up as a domestic-based alternative but as I noted before its future already appears to be in doubt. Though the Norwegian Nobel Committee operates independently from the government, diplomatic ties between China and Norway, which were chilly even before the announcement in 2009 (according to the published cables from WikiLeaks), have become deep frozen – trade rules over salmon being the latest episode in this saga.

Meanwhile, Liu is still in jail, serving out an 11-year sentence. Liu Xia, who had enjoyed relative freedom even after her husband was sentenced in December 2009, was placed under unofficial house arrest in Beijing shortly after the 2010 Peace Prize announcement, where she still remains.

“As far as I know, the way she is treated is unprecedented in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize,” Norwegian Nobel Committee secretary Geir Lundestad told Associated Press. “Her situation is extremely regrettable.”

The day of the 2011 Peace Prize announcement was described as an “awkward anniversary in China” by Evan Osnos on the New Yorker blog. As Osnos notes, the country’s obsession with the Nobel Prizes runs to the extent that the title of a science programme on Chinese state television a few years ago was entitled “How far are we from a Nobel Prize?

The term “China’s Nobel complex” was coined by Professor Julia Lovell to define the paradox that the country faces since re-entering the international community in the 1980s. China sees Nobel Prizes like Olympic gold medals, demonstrating global recognition as a modern world power, yet the authorities resent seeking validation from outsiders. This resentment grows to anger when the state perceives outsiders to be exploiting “Western” values to discredit their history and traditions, as was the case with the 2010 Peace Prize, and also with the 2000 Literature Prize to the dissident writer Gao Xingjian.

It’s an obsession I have experienced first-hand. As an editor at Nature Publishing Group who helped to organize a conference series in China and who visited several laboratories, the burning question almost all senior academics wanted me to answer was what would it take to have a “homegrown Nobel Prize?” (My answer, rather weak I admit, was to say that while there might be the talent, you have to create and nurture a culture and environment similar to what you would find in so-called “Nobel-worthy” institutions.) My first experience of Nobel Week in December 2007 coincided with a visiting delegation from China, with the question foremost in their minds. Nobel committee members have come under fire for accepting paid-for trips to China, though a probe by the Swedish government anti-corruption body found no evidence of bribery, concluding that the prize selection process is too complex for any individual to have a significant influence.

Despite last year’s Peace Prize, China’s Nobel obsession hasn’t dimmed, reports Osnos. Over the past few months the state press has feverishly covered anything that can be associated with the Nobel name — from headlining this year’s Lasker Award to the Chinese scientist Tu Youyou as ‘America’s Nobel’, to reporting the opening of the recent Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting on Economic Sciences. And as far as I can tell, science laureates visiting China are still treated like celebrities, with lectures packed to the rafters, unlike similar lectures in say, the US and UK.

But any thought that China might concede some ground on the Peace Prize in pursuit of their Nobel dreams in science has received a rude shock in the last few days. Last week, Norway’s foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Støre wrote some conciliatory words in a full-page commentary in Norway’s leading business newspaper Dagens Næringsliv, saying that the Norwegian government has taken China’s angry reaction seriously, understands that they are upset, but hopes that moves can be made to restore relations. This olive branch offering was rejected by China yesterday; a statement from the Chinese embassy in Oslo saying that the Norwegian government “supported this wrong decision”, and that “we expect that the Norwegian side will make tangible efforts to restore and develop the bilateral relations.”

What form these “tangible efforts” could take isn’t clear. As this article notes, it could require an apology from the Norwegian government for supporting the Peace Prize, which would be an unprecedented move, or perhaps a statement of regret from the Norwegian government regarding China’s offence at Norway’s support for the prize. Whatever the outcome, it looks like China’s response to “losing face” over the Peace Prize is to push the Norwegian government towards a similar outcome.

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