ON FRIDAY last week, the Philippines joined the pathetic list of countries that joined the Chinese campaign to snub the Nobel Prize ceremonies honoring Liu Xiaobo, Chinese human rights activist and now political prisoner. That list includes Russia, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Tunisia, Iraq, Iran, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Serbia, Pakistan, Egypt, Morocco?and the Philippines.
?That lovely collection of rogues and cowards??and Asia?s most democratic country now stands shoulder to shoulder with them all. For a country that takes pride in its ?one brief shining moment? at Edsa 1, what we did last week showed that the moment has long lost its sheen. It was an ironic way to mark the global celebration of human rights day. It was bungled to start with. It began with a feeble excuse that our ambassador had a scheduling conflict. We later heard a categorical explanation by President Benigno Aquino III that it was to uphold the national interest, that is to say, to save the lives of Filipino drug dealers currently on death row in Chinese prisons.
The first would have been the typical, disingenuous diplomatic explanation. The second was possibly geared to the local Pinoy audience. It was pragmatic and real, and appealed to a sense of self-preservation. It shows that the President himself disbelieved the diplomatic but lame explanation, and felt that the quid pro quo might be more persuasive. Indeed it was, but only because the local debate on foreign policy rarely goes for the lofty or profound. It is more often determined by the crass and the short-term. In other words, the second explanation assumes its audience to be similarly crass and attuned only to the most graphic and immediate practical interests.
But perhaps we can now look at how much China won or lost in this Nobel Peace prize episode. Liu Xiaobo was convicted on Christmas Day 2009 to 11 years in prison for subversion. China pulled no punches in trying to discredit the honor that the Nobel committee was giving. It formally protested with Oslo. It lobbied with countries to boycott the proceedings honoring Liu as a peace laureate. China?s controlled press has branded the award as an affront, an act of interference in its internal affairs. It has deliberately portrayed Liu as a criminal and the Nobel committee as interlopers acting in behalf of the usual suspects, led by the United States. It blocked off TV coverage of the Nobel awarding ceremonies, and jammed the websites of BBC and NRK, a Norwegian television channel, one day before the awarding at Oslo. It barred Liu?s Chinese sympathizers from travelling to Oslo to attend the awarding ceremonies. They placed Liu?s wife under house arrest for no apparent crime, and I saw on CNN how its own reporters were shooed away from the sidewalk in front of Liu?s home from where they wanted to broadcast their report.
China?s spokeswoman was quoted: ?If someone wants to make a fuss with the issue of Liu Xiaobo and challenge China?s judicial system or even wants to change the path of China?s politics and development, they are doomed to fail. We will not change because of interference by a few clowns.?
China has justly taken pride in its ?Peaceful Rise? concept, but these latest maneuvers show that its notion of ?peace? belongs to the pre-human rights covenant days, when what a nation did internally to its own citizens was nobody else?s business, and that its notion of ?rise? is limited to the economic and doesn?t extend to the political realm. The two weeks preceding the Oslo ceremonies showed us the mailed fist that China is capable of using against its own people.
Purely by chance, I have just finished reading a book on China?s Cultural Revolution, titled ?Mao?s Last Revolution? by MacFarquhar and Schoenhals. The domestic game that China is playing today shows the same herd thinking that China deployed during that sad lamentable era. What is worrisome for neighboring countries like the Philippines is that that same thinking today enjoys renewed vigor under a new banner, that of nationalism, which is now used to delegitimize human rights activists like Liu. It is actually reminiscent of Marcos-era rhetoric that labeled democracy activists as troublemakers and saboteurs of the New Society.
If indeed the Nobel Peace Prize is politicized and was meant to chastise China for its dismal record in human rights, then it surely succeeded in demonstrating to the world precisely the evils that Liu Xiaobo was fighting against. In other words, China acted exactly like the bully that Liu Xiaobo and his group said it is. Worse, China showed that it wouldn?t hesitate to use its newfound prosperity to full advantage. Of course all other wealthy countries do that as well, but at least they make a public show of piety, of at least upholding some larger norm other than naked self-interest.
The message that China sends is: ?Leave us alone!? That same notion of nationalism might have been viable with a small Third World country like the Philippines. But for a powerful country like China that thrives on global trade to use that line, it means that it still thinks like a poor country. Nobody sees China as a poor country anymore. It isn?t. And it should stop sounding like it is. It is one of the big boys now, and it must learn to play not the primitive game of bullying enemies and buying friends, but the sophisticated game of invoking and, yes, manipulating global norms such as human rights to its advantage and, hopefully, to its own people?s as well.