Liu Xiaobo and the Confraternization of Nations

My new book is the elephant in the room that official Norway – politicians, most media, academics – are adamant not to see,

Frederik S. Heffermehl wrote in a guest commentary for News in English, a Norwegian website, on December 10. The purpose of the prize, i. e. Nobel’s will, had been global disarmament based on international law and institutions. Heffermehl warned that the continuing silence maintained by Thorbjørn Jagland and Geir Lundestad, the chair and secretary of the committee, and the absence of a public debate, was undermining democracy. Without a certain respect for facts, truth and honest debate, democracy cannot function, he wrote.

On his website, Heffermehl points out that a will may need to be reinterpreted according to changed realities, but adds that the realities Nobel was facing when establishing the Peace Nobel Prize hadn’t changed at all.

[T]he goal of the interpretation of a will is to find out what the testator intended, the purpose he or she had in mind. To describe the recipients he had in mind Nobel created a Swedish word, fredsförfäktare (‘‘champions of peace’’). Under the law it is both improper and illegal for the Nobel Committee to ignore the specific expression that Nobel actually used, champions of peace, and instead give its own content to the much less specific term ‘‘peace prize.’’ The committee is guilty of an unauthorized change of its mandate.

Criteria for choosing a winner are neatly listed there, and not easy to be found elsewhere.

It should be pointed out that Heffermehl does not criticize Liu Xiaobo, this year’s winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. He criticizes – and has long criticized – what he considers a deviation in our times, from Nobel’s original will.

The criteria listed by Heffermehl had, he writes, been left to help the Nobel Committee understand what Nobel had in mind. Going by the criteria, I think the award to Liu Xiaobo is actually justified.

1. The greatest benefit on Mankind

It is justified to think of Liu as a man who during the expired year has conferred the greatest benefit on mankind. In a country where nationalism is rampant, and every move or utterance against it considered treason, by the authorities and many “ordinary people”, Liu wasn’t shy to speak his mind. With the charter 08, in the drafting of which he played a leading role, he spelled out what it takes to help people find peace with themselves, and those who govern. Censorship, propaganda, and victimization by countless relative powerless people by relatively more powerful ones has led to a climate in China which is continuously searching for scapegoats. Conveniently, and thanks to propaganda and censorship, much of the anger is now projected on people and powers abroad. Liu has now served the first out of eleven years for speaking truth for power.

Many people elsewhere are no less brave in their search for peace than Liu Xiaobo, and suffer no less than he does. Many people elsewhere actually pay with their lives. But if Heffermehl’s challenge to the Nobel Committee is the elephant in the official Norway’s room, Liu’s contribution is big, too, because his country is the new elephant in the room of the global economy and global politics,  and because many of Liu’s compatriots are or were unaware of the efforts he and other human-rights activists made. Many of his compatriots condemn his efforts, out of fear of “foreign conspiracies” against China.

2. Champions of Peace

There is no civil society in China that would address the requirements for peace. The Chinese Communist Party decides what contributes to peace within and without. Non-governmental involvement is only a theory. The steps a man or a woman can take in China had been taken by people like Liu. He had helped to draft the Charter. He had spoken “truth to power” – and he spoke his sometimes juicy, but frequently thought-provoking (if you are willing to think) opinion to the very small Chinese “public” that was technically in a position to take note of his opinion.

The verdict brought by Beijing First Intermediate People’s Court in December last year wasn’t specific. It is possible that it only took the drafting of the Charter 08 into consideration. It is also possible that it took everything from 1989 (or even d1988) to 2008 into consideration. Liu’s eleven-year prison sentence comes across as a culminative reaction to his work – and the Nobel Peace Prize may count as a culminative appraisal of it.

3. Confraternization of Nations

Given the secrecy of the Chinese state, the state surveillance of its media – mass media and individula media such as cellphones alike -, news and information is often hard to verify. But Liu Xiaobo did make contributions to the confraternization of nations even within China. Liu linked Han-Chinese human rights and Tibetan rights, according to Woeser:

I still remember that night when he asked me in his stammering voice on Skype to please sign my name under “Charter 08” as a sign of respect and trust towards him and in memory of his long support of and consideration for the Tibetan issue. I signed my name without any hesitation. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested in his home and one year later, concealed by the haze of Christmas celebrations, he was sentenced to 11 years imprisonment.

Liu Xiaobo, once again, isn’t the only human-rights activists who considers every Chinese citizen’s human rights, regardless of nationality. In several cases, Han-Chinese lawyers volunteered to defend Tibetan culprits in “politically sensitive” cases. When reading what Dolkar Tso, wife of an imprisoned Tibetan businessman, reportedly wrote early this year, it gives you an idea as of how feelings can contribute to peace among people with different civilizational backgrounds, or how feelings can stirr hatred between them.

But while Liu Xiaobo isn’t the only Han-Chinese stakeholder who cares, he is, again, an outstanding citizen of an important country. He doesn’t fear his own country. He doesn’t fear the outside world. He says that he has no enemies, and no hatred. To be able to handle ones own fears is a prerequisite for confaternization.

4. Abolition of Standing Armies

Here, interpretation comes into play, indeed. No big and no small country worldwide is in the mood to advocate the abolition of standing armies – not even Costa Rica, which has no standing army of its own. That Liu isn’t calling for disbanding standing armies doesn’t disqualify him.

5. The Holding and Promotion of Peace Congresses

Every statesman, no matter his record otherwise, can probably be praised for his or her support of one or another peace congress. Liu is, for obvious reasons, in no position to hold or promote peace congresses.

All that said, Heffermehl’s objections to the Nobel Committee’s work do seem to require public debate in Norway. I believe that the right man got the prize in 2010, but for the reasons I’ve given here myself. The problem for the committee in actually “justifying” its choices, I believe, is to state its reasons, but without “offending” powers that be. This is particularly true the case with  China which raises hell in such situations. But when looking at the list of winners since 1960, you can frequently appreciate the temptation for a jury to keep its explanations pussy-footed.

China reportedly suspended trade talks with Norway indefinitely in November. No matter if “cultural relativism”, business interests, or anything else are reasons for the Committee’s  ways of communication – they need to be discussed in a democracy, if democracy is to function.

Liu Xiaobo is the first Han-Chinese winner of a Nobel. When thinking about the Nobel Peace Prize, can you think of other Chinese citizens who deserve the prize, too, or instead?

7 Responses to “Liu Xiaobo and the Confraternization of Nations”

  1. This is a good attempt and many interesting points raised, but it overlooks one essential aspect and the following sentence in my text: “The concepts confraternization, disarmament, and peace congresses are interdependent and mutually helpful to understand what a champion of peace is.” The interpretation is not about picking the different expressions Nobel used and read them out of context with the concepts of our time – the will is about the will – of the testator, not the Norwegian Nobel Committee. The committee should interpret who Nobel had in mind describing the recipients as “the champions of peace”, not pick a concept of their own, “peace” and define what they would like it to mean. This is the gross and elementary mistake of the committee, which now has received a thorough legal analysis in my books in Norwegian and English (The Nobel Peace Prize. What Nobel Really Wanted) and soon in Chinese, Russian, Finnish and Swedish – but flatly refuses to respect the law and the norms of truthseeking public debate.
    Fredrik S. Heffermehl


  2. I can see your point that these different expressions should be seen as linked among each other, Mr. Heffermehl – and I can see that the committee either hasn’t done that, or hasn’t accounted for that in its press release in October.
    Hence my own little exercise above.

    The most likely candidates for the prize, as you describe them, would be people and organizations who work for a demilitarized international community through international negotiations. Nobel’s interest in and support for Bertha von Suttner’s work notwithstanding, I don’t read him as an uncompromising pacifist, and himself, too, as a man who weighed different options and trends. What he wrote in his testament, the document your research, I believe, centers around, Nobel wrote: “…and a part in that which has worked mostly or best of all towards the fraternisation of the people and the abolition or decrease of standing armies as well as holding or the support of peace congresses”. The options included would then be both disarmament (which requires a very high degree of mutual or universal trust) and arms control (which can encourage some trust, and amount to some initial steps, wouldn’t they?

    I think I should make it clear that my focus isn’t on if the committee is guilty of a general unauthorized change of its mandate, over the decades. My main interest at the moment, and my motivation to write this post on Tuesday, is as to why Liu, as an isolated case, shouldn’t qualify.

    When looking at the recipients of the award rather than at the background of the jury, your objection to the award being given to Liu seems to be that peace would be rather a by-product of his work, and not his main purpose. Do I get this right? Would it become a different story, from a legal perspective, if Liu had called for the abolition of standing armies, or the holding and promotion of peace congresses, in addition to his work? Or should the correctness or incorrectness of awarding the prize to Liu only be judged in connection with the awards that had been made to previous recipients (and the kind of work they did), during the previous decades?


  3. Thank you for being willing to read and respond – After three years of trying to elicit a truth-seeking and meaningful response from the Norwegian Parliament, the Nobel Committee, the Norwegian media, the Norwegian academics, I am not accustomed to intelligent and honest, fair response.

    Three years ago the Norwegian Parliament and its Nobel committee were reminded of the purpose of the Nobel Champions of Peace Prize. They have since proved absolutely unwilling to discuss the two crucial issues: 1) is the will (intention) of the testator the crucial point in the interpretation of a testament? and 2) What did Alfred Nobel intend establishing his prize for “the champions of peace”?

    You write that you “don’t read [Nobel] as an uncompromising pacifist”, but “as a man who weighed different options and trends.” This is correct, he was reluctant and speculated in many directions on the problem. What counts, however, is that he ended up being convinced by Suttner to “do something big” for her movement. He feared that they might be too ambitious demanding disarmament, but still, writing his will, he decided to support the goals of the peace movement through his prize.
    I think you are absolutely right that the options included would then be both disarmament and a plethora of steps to achieve this. As long as the committee is loyal to the idea of a radically new and disarmed world order, loyal to Nobel´s intention, they are in compliance.
    Today the prize has no profile and will not do anything to challenge militarism and the arms industry as a central force in influencing the conduct of international affairs.

    The prize has been appropriated by the Norwegian parliament, anyone and anything could get it – so you may well ask “why Liu, as an isolated case, shouldn’t qualify.” If you wish my answer, There is much damning information in the discussion initiated by independent intellectual Tariq Ali at the London Review of Books ( website. In an article entitled “The Nobel War Prize” he criticizes China for making a martyr of Liu Xiaobo by jailing him, and the Nobel Committee for making a hero of a neo-con supporter of America´s wars. URL (Retrieved on December 23, 2010):

    Your final questions:
    1: your objection to the award being given to Liu seems to be that peace would be rather a by-product of his work, and not his main purpose. Do I get this right?
    Answer: yes.

    2: Would it become a different story, from a legal perspective, if Liu had called for the abolition of standing armies, or the holding and promotion of peace congresses, in addition to his work?
    Answer: I do not believe a literal emphasis on these points is correct, the content of the will is decided more by the expression “champions of peace” and what people / ideas Nobel had in mind using that expression.

    3: Or should the correctness or incorrectness of awarding the prize to Liu only be judged in connection with the awards that had been made to previous recipients (and the kind of work they did), during the previous decades?
    Answer: The committee never took their mandate and the intention of Alfred Nobel seriously and the previous awards offer no guidance.

    Fredrik S. Heffermehl


  4. I don’t think the information in Tariq Ali’s discussion is damning, but I for sure understand the relevance of his point c) in the discussion about the Nobel Peace Prize and its award to Liu Xiaobo. Thanks for filling this gap in my knowledge.

    As for point a), I think it’s worthwile to mention that he made that statement in 1988, and I don’t believe that it should be held against him.



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