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
Photo: Reuters
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Murder by numbers: the legacy of the Grenfell Tower fire

It is difficult to refute the reality of suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned.

How do we measure human malice? Sometimes it’s all too easy. This summer, British cities are struggling through the aftermath of successive terrorist attacks and hate crimes. The Manchester bombing. The Westminster Bridge murders. The London Bridge atrocity. The attack on people outside the Finsbury Park Mosque in north London and on other mosques. The unidentified young men who are still at large in the capital after spraying acid in the faces of passers-by, mutilating them.

In Britain, we are commendably resilient about these things. Returning to London after some time away, I found my spirits lifted by an issue of the London Evening Standard magazine that celebrated the ordinary people who stepped in to help after these atrocities. The paramedics who worked through the night. The Romanian chef who offered shelter in his bakery. The football fan who took on the London Bridge terrorists, screaming, “Fuck you, I’m Millwall!” The student housing co-ordinator who rushed to organise board for the victims of the inferno at the Grenfell Tower and their families.

Wait. Hold on a second. One of these things is not like the others. The Grenfell Tower disaster, in which at least 80 people died, was not a terrorist or malicious attack. It was the result of years of callous council decisions and underinvestment in social housing. On 14 June, entire families burned alive in their homes partly because, it is alleged, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would not pay the extra £5,000 or so for fire-resistant cladding. Nor could it find the cash, despite a budget surplus, to instal proper sprinkler systems on the rotting interior of the building.

Kensington and Chelsea is a Tory borough that, in cash terms, cares very little for poorer citizens who are unlikely to vote the right way. In 2014, while the Grenfell Tower residents were refused basic maintenance, the council handed out £100 rebates to its top-rate taxpayers, boasting of its record of “consistently delivering greater efficiencies while improving services”. Some of those efficiencies had names, and parents, and children.

This is a different sort of depravity altogether. It’s depravity with plausible deniability, right up until the point at which deniability goes up in flames. Borrowing from Friedrich Engels, John McDonnell described the Grenfell Tower disaster as “social murder”. The shadow chancellor and sometime Jack Russell of the parliamentary left has never been known for his delicate phrasing.

Naturally, the Tory press queued up to condemn McDonnell – not because he was wrong but because he was indiscreet. “There’s a long history in this country of the concept of social murder,” he said, “where decisions are made with no regard to the consequences… and as a result of that people have suffered.”

It is difficult to refute the reality of that suffering when the death toll is still being reckoned from the towering tombstone that now blights the west London skyline.” As the philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote, “The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

Market austerity is no less brutal for being bloodless, calculating, an ideology of measuring human worth in pennies and making cuts that only indirectly slice into skin and bone. Redistributing large sums of money from the poor to the rich is not simply an abstract moral infraction: it kills. It shortens lives and blights millions more. Usually, it does so in a monstrously phlegmatic manner: the pensioners who die early of preventable diseases, the teenagers who drop out of education, the disabled people left to suffer the symptoms of physical and mental illness with nobody to care for them, the thousands who have died on the waiting lists for state benefits that they are perfectly entitled to, the parents whose pride disintegrates as they watch their children go to school hungry.

We are not encouraged to measure the human cost of austerity in this way, even though there are many people in back offices making exactly these sorts of calculations. This year, when researchers from the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine claimed that “relentless cuts” to the health service could explain as many as 30,000 “excess deaths” in England and Wales in 2015, the government denounced this as “a triumph of personal bias over research”, which, however you slice it, is a callous prep school debater’s response to the reality of 30,000 fresh graves.

There is a species of evil in which an individual allows the dark and yammering corners of his mind to direct him to put a blade in a bystander’s belly, or a bomb in a bustling crowd of teenage girls. That sort of monstrosity is as easy to identify as it is mercifully rare, though frighteningly less rare than it was in less febrile times. But there is another sort of evil that seldom makes the headlines. This comes about when someone sits down with a calculator and works out how much it will cost to protect and nurture human life, deducts that from the cost of a tax rebate for local landowners or a nice night at the opera, then comes up with a figure. It’s an ordinary sort of evil, and it has become routine and automated in the austerity years. It is a sort of evil, in the words of Terry Pratchett, that “begins when you begin to treat people as things”. 

The Grenfell Tower disaster was the hellish evidence of the consequences of fiscal ruthlessness that nobody could look away from. Claims that it could not have been predicted were shot down by the victims. The residents’ association wrote on its campaign website after years of begging the council to improve living conditions: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord.”

That catastrophic event has happened, and the ordinary British response to tragedy – brave, mannered dignity – is inappropriate. When the Grenfell inquiry launches next month, it is incumbent on every citizen to call for answers and to call this kind of travesty by its name: murder by numbers.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder