Ignoble reactions to the Nobel Peace Prize

Not everyone is pleased Liu Xiaobo is this year's laureate

The decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was obviously not going to go down well with Beijing. It is intriguing to note, however, the reaction in China itself and that in the neighbouring region.

Clifford Coonan reports in today's Independent that "many Chinese see it as yet another attack on China, embodying what they see as sour grapes in the West about China's startling economic rise and a lack of understanding of how the country works." He also points to criticism from Wei Jingsheng, a pro-democracy activist imprisoned for two decades and now in exile in the US. "In my observation, the Nobel Peace Prize is going to Liu because he is different from the majority of people in opposition. He made more gestures of cooperation with the government and made more criticism of other resisters who suffered," Wei told the AFP news agency.

About the strongest local criticism of the award so far has come from Singapore, from one of the city-state's most prominent former diplomats, currently Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, Kishore Mahbubani. I'm indebted to Asia Sentinel for picking up the following remarks he made at a dinner last Friday:

"We all respect the Nobel Peace Prize. Most winners deserve the prizes they get. Nobel Prizes by and large reflect the western world view. The winners in Asia are never leaders who brought great change. The man that did more good than anyone was Deng Xiaoping. When he came to power 800 million people were living on less than one dollar a day. Thirty years later on after the results of his reforms, 200 million lived on less than one dollar a day. Six hundred million people were lifted out of poverty.

Will he ever get a Nobel Peace Prize? Never. Because of the western world view that the prize must be given to dissidents in Asia. Aung San Suu Kyii (although she deserves it). The former leader of Korea. What has Obama brought? Where is the peace in Iraq? In Afghanistan? How can you give him a Nobel Peace Prize? He is a wonderful guy but he has achieved nothing. Deng Xiaoping saved 600 million people and he will never get a Nobel Peace Prize. That's why it is important to step outside the western world view."

Mahbubani conveniently omits to mention the matter of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. If it were possible to leave that aside, then a strong case for Deng's period of office could be made. But it isn't, which makes the suggestion grotesque and gratuitously offensive. Also on Asia Sentinel, the International Herald Tribune columnist and former Far Eastern Economic Review editor, Philip Bowring, puts Mahbubani smartly right, calling his comments about dissidents "just the sort of half-truth that one expects from Singapore apologists for authoritarian regimes similar to their own. It also reflects Singapore's attempts to appear ultra-Asian while aligning its economic and strategic interests with the west."

However, even if he represents an extreme end of the spectrum, Mahbubani will not be alone in his view of how this year's Nobel Peace Laureate was chosen. President Obama and representatives of EU countries, including Britain and France, have welcomed the award, as have the governments of New Zealand and Australia - which as Asia-Pacific countries have a much more direct interest in good relations with China.

But from the leaders of the ten nation ASEAN bloc bordering China, I can find no evidence of congratulations to Liu - nor even any statement in which he is named. Just silence.

An example of a rather ignoble pragmatism? Tacit sympathy with those "Asian Values" of which Mahbubani is just one exponent (Malaysia's former prime minister Mahathir or Singapore's Minister Mentor Lee being two others)? Perhaps. Or maybe with their own less-than-perfect human rights records, they prefer not to laud those who might well have ended up in jail in their countries too.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.