By Lucia Green-Weiskel

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize recipient Liu Xiaobo’s life story is powerful and compelling and deserve to be celebrated. Liu had a front row seat to recent history’s most grim and hopeful moments. As a young boy he grew up during the Great Leap Forward, Mao Zedong’s failed economic project based on scientific quackery and delusional egoism that resulted in the death of 30 million people. He was a teenager with intellectual parents at a time when academics were forced to the countryside for reeducation through manual labor and when, in some cases, cannibalism was practiced against academics, viewed as “party enemies.” Later in life Liu earned a Master’s degree and then a PhD, both in China. He was moved to return from overseas to his native China in 1989 to support the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy rallies. But when he arrived, he helped students leave the square instead of continue the protest and saved many lives as a result. In 2008, he drafted a new constitution for China, Charter 08, based on democracy and human rights, which landed him in prison for the fourth time and where he is expected to remain until 2020.

But Liu’s legacy is not having “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations,” as it is written in the Will from Alfred Nobel.  Instead, Liu’s prize may aggravate US-China relations in a way that moves the countries toward conflict and away from peace.

China scholars have long been vigilant about the prospects of war between the US and China – cold or hot. One thread of consistency that runs through the motley group of collision-course scenarios has to do with the question of norms (cultural, political and societal), pitting the individualism of John Locke that is the bedrock of the American way of life against the collectivism and societal harmony of Confucius that underpins Chinese society. In the subtle language of diplomacy, Liu’s prize is a shot across the bow – a statement that says Western-style democracy reigns supreme, America calls the shots on what is and isn’t “peace.”

From China’s perspective, proponents of democracy and human rights have gone beyond their mandate to protect individuals and instead are serving components of a larger agenda of the Western liberal elite to destabilize the Chinese Communist Party. In China one often hears discussions of human rights and democratization coupled with phrases like “ulterior motives” and “US imperialism.” Indeed in a country still governed by a communist party, “democratization” and “regime change” are functionally identical concepts.

As long as China views the human rights discourse as Western hypocrisy— an ideological weapon in a geo-strategic struggle that pits a declining US against a rising China – we must ask, what exactly does “peace” mean in the context of the Nobel Prize, when it is awarded to an individual who embodies that ideological weapon?

Historically speaking, the Chinese government doesn’t respond well to high profile, public challenges to its human rights record. Public shaming tends to drive Chinese leaders to impose harsher crackdowns. For example, in the spring of 2008, Icelandic singer Bjork performed to a packed audience in Shanghai. At the end of “Declare Independence” (a song she claims is about the Farrow Islands) she whispered in short breathy exhales “Tibet, Tibet.” Recordings circulated widely on YouTube. Hours later YouTube was added to the list of restricted sights in China. No more could young Chinese access the cornucopia of pop culture, the lifeline to new music, viral videos, notable speeches, and, well, just about everything. Instead of punishing the Chinese government, Bjork’s actions punished the very people she would want to empower: China’s youth. Two years later, there is still no YouTube in China.

Likewise, Liu’s prize may lead to fewer political freedoms for citizens of China. Already there has been an escalation in internet censorship and threat of prison time for Chinese who mention Liu’s name in emails or chat rooms. (Last week, to avoid emails to Chinese friends “disappearing” new codes were invented like “N0b3l P3ace Pr1ze”.)

The other point that is important to remember is that Liu’s prize is a bit anachronistic. The fever for western-style democracy has passed in China and is increasingly unhip. Most young people see the American model of elections as a messy, morally-indulgent and entangling procedure that results in paralysis and can be easily corrupted. Young Chinese hardly see the US as the moral authority on human rights after such memorable policies as Guantanamo, illegal detentions and torture and a popular supported war in which 100,000 civilians were killed. Chinese youth are increasingly standing by their own country’s record of non-intervention (China is the only great power that has never colonized another country) and empowerment through economic development (China’s communist party policies have lifted 30 million people out of poverty — half the world’s poverty reduction since 1945).

Finally, Liu’s influence (if he even has any in China) will be undermined by more compelling political change. During the same week that Liu become the Nobel laureate, two notable moments indicated (for those who were paying attention) that there are political stirrings toward liberalization that may hold more promise, and be more realistic, than the brand of revolution offered by Liu.

Last week at the UN climate change conference in Tianjin, an event of historic proportions quietly slipped by the main stream media. Chief climate negotiator Xie Zhenhua held a press conference in which he enthusiastically praised the work of the non-governmental organizations in China. This is significant because ten years ago nothing in China was non-governmental. The rise in both visibility and influence of Chinese non-governmental organizations is an authentic and homegrown movement toward pluralism and political participation.

In another apparent push toward pluralism, in a recent interview on CNN, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao also made history: “[T]he people’s wishes for and needs for democracy and freedom are irresistible,” he said. “I often say that we should not only let people have the freedom of speech, we more importantly must create conditions to let them criticize the work of the government. It is only when there is the supervision and critical oversight from the people that the government will be in a position to do an even better job, and employees of government departments will be the true public servants of the people.”

Wen closes his interview by saying to interviewer, Fareed Zakaria: “I hope that you will be able to gradually see the continuous progress of China.” It may be that Wen and Xie’s comments are early indicators of significant political liberalization in China – that is if not just Zakaria, but the entire Western world can see it. Because it is more likely their traditions, and not as much Liu’s, that will lead to political change in China.