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Nobel-Winner Xiaobo ‘Stuck to His Guns’ on China’s Political Reform

October 8, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Two weeks after Beijing warned the committee not to do so, it awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo. Margaret Warner talks to Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, for more.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Margaret Warner takes the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: Two weeks ago, Beijing publicly warned the Nobel Committee and Norway against awarding the prize to Liu Xiaobo. Today, the Foreign Ministry reacted angrily to the news, saying the Nobel Committee had honored a criminal sentenced for violating Chinese law.

President Obama issued a written statement calling for the 54-year-old Liu’s release. He saluted Liu as “an eloquent and courageous spokesman for the advance of universal values through peaceful and nonviolent means.”

For more on today’s winner, and Beijing’s reaction, we’re joined by Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society’s Center of — on U.S.-China Relations.

And, Professor Schell, welcome back to the program.

Let’s start with Liu Xiaobo. Tell us a little more about him. Would you agree with the committee that he is the foremost human rights activist in China?

ORVILLE SCHELL, director, Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations: Well, he certainly has been very tenacious ever since 1989.

He also has been rather consistent in his message, which is that China needs to have slow, incremental and peaceful democratic change, if it’s going to continue to develop and continue to be a contender in the world.

Of course, some of his predictions seem somewhat belied by the fact that China has done quite nicely with authoritarian capitalism. But his point is, in the future, political reform really will have to go arm in arm with economic reform.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, he didn’t start out as a democracy advocate. He started out as a — what, a writer and a professor.

ORVILLE SCHELL: He was a professor at Beijing Normal University. And he was on a fellowship at Columbia in 1989 when the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square broke out.

And he went back and he played a quite prominent role, particularly in the very last days of the demonstrations, before the People’s Liberation Army came in. He started a hunger strike with three other prominent figures, one rock star, to try to both encourage the students to leave and also, I think, to discourage the army from coming in. And he was imprisoned after that as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, let’s fast-forward to this Charter 08 document. There were many intellectuals involved in writing that and in signing that. Yet he was singled out for this very harsh prison term last December. Why? Why does the regime see him as particularly, I don’t know, threatening?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, I think what is unique, has been unique about him is that he has not chosen to go the economic route, to go into business, to get wealthy, to do science, or to go abroad. He sort of stuck to his guns on this notion of political reform, which the party, I think, is also in favor of, but on its own schedule.

And Liu Xiaobo tended to be one of these cannons loose on the deck, as far as they were concerned, agitating outside of the control of the party, and indeed trying to organize other intellectuals, which is exactly the most fearful prospect for the party, because they remembered so vividly and with no small degree of anxiety what happened in 1989.

So, this Charter 08 really was a list of all the different kinds of rights that Chinese should expect to get as the reform movement went forward. And I think the party just felt, in its quest for stability and its fear of the unstable sort of fracture points in Chinese society today, that this sort of independence was too threatening.

MARGARET WARNER: Are there many — does he have many fellow dissidents in China who are still active like this?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, one would have to say that the tradition of May 4 and June 4 in 1989, which I think it’s fair to say Liu Xiaobo was a part of and continued, is not particularly robust at this time.

And part of that reason is because, having opened the economic door, most people have gone there. There, you can express yourself, get rich, be quite free. There’s whole new dimensions of life’s advancement, whereas, in the political realm, it’s a very powerless situation, and you get into trouble very quickly.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, explain an apparent disconnect, which is, China has been riding high lately. It’s been throwing its economic and military weight around.

And yet they go out on a limb two weeks ago, and publicly and privately warn the committee not to give this prize. And then they react very strongly today against it. What explains that?

ORVILLE SCHELL: Well, you know, I think China and the Chinese Communist Party and its leaders have a very deep yearning to regain for China the measure of respect which they felt it lost beginning with the opium war 150 years ago.

And one measure of this respect that’s been — that’s eluded them is in a Nobel Prize. The Dalai Lama was sort of Chinese, got it. Gao Xingjian, a novelist who lived in France, got it, but was not very warmly disposed towards the party.

So this has been a tremendous kind of a goal and something that they have not been able to get. And now China gets it, the party gets it, and who is it? It’s someone they disagree with, someone they have accused of being a criminal, someone they have locked up.

And I think it’s a very, very — a very bitter pill to swallow. And I — I fear that, even though it may be justified, and — and one knows the history of Liu Xiaobo, I — I’m not certain but that it won’t have a very untoward effect in terms of China becoming more controlling, more tight, more steeped in its old victim culture that it really needs to get out of, and I think wants to get out of.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Orville Schell, thank you so much.

ORVILLE SCHELL: Pleasure.