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Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo: China clampdown

The Nobel Peace Prize ceremony Dec. 10 marks only the second time in history that neither the winner nor a family member is able to come to accept the award.

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Sam Zarifi
Asia-Pacific Program Director, Amnesty International
Friday, December 10, 2010; 11:00 AM

China braced Friday for the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned human rights advocate Liu Xiaobo, blocking broadcasts of the ceremony and tightening its grip on activists to prevent them from celebrating the honor in any way.

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Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific program director, was online Friday, Dec. 10, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo, the human rights situation and recent crackdown in China.

China has prohibited Liu and his family members from leaving China to attend Friday's ceremony in Oslo. Nobel committee organizers said the jailed intellectual would be represented by an empty chair - the first time the award will not be presented to a laureate in person since 1936, when Carl von Ossietzky, a German pacifist jailed by the Nazi regime, was prevented from attending the ceremony.

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Sam Zarifi: Hello, this is Sam Zarifi with Amnesty International in London. Earlier today the Nobel committee awarded the Nobel Peace prize to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese writer and activist. Neither he nor any member of his family were able to attend in person to receive the prize, the first time this has happened since 1936 when a German peace activist was similarly prevented from appearing in person.

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Bethesda, Md.: What retaliation might the Chinese government take to the almost universal negative response to their refusal to permit the Nobel winner to attend the award ceremony or to their suppression of news coverage of the event in China?

Might it be any of the following: Withdrawal of the six-nation efforts to resolve the stand-off between North and South Korea? Supression of results of the referendum scheduled on issues in Sudan, including the situation in Darfur? Becoming less receptive to efforts by Secretary of State Clinton and other U.S. or Western diplomats to seek China's participation in multi-lateral efforts to resolve global issues?

Sam Zarifi: The Chinese government has used diplomacy, economic pressure, and in some cases threats of worsening ties to push a number of other governments to avoid attending the ceremony in Oslo, or to criticize the Nobel committee's decision. As a result, 18 or 19 (we're still trying to figure out who didn't attend and why) governments didn't attend the ceremony. Beijing has publicly stated that it interprets this as the majority of the world being against the prize. In fact, it seems as if the Chinese government's public posturing has been counterproductive and unified a lot of people around the world in condemning the continuing imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo as well as the recent crackdown on other activists in China.

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Sam Zarifi: Just adding to the last response about China's possible response to the Nobel prize:

We've seen the Chinese government grumble and attack other governments when they have done something perceived as problematic. The Chinese government has been much more likely to throw its weight around on such issues lately. But we've also seen that after a few months of posturing, they have resumed economic or political relations, as demanded by their interests. China needs international relations as much as the international community needs the Chinese market. So other governments shouldn't be intimidated by the posturing; China is a real world player and it can and should be able to hand out as well as receive criticism.

As to specific outcomes, even if there is a temporary retrenchment on any of the issues you mentioned, such as North Korea, Darfur, or Myanmar, at the end of the day the Chinese government exists in a world where these issues are problems for it too: they need North Korean stability; they need to avoid embarrassment in Darfur; they need to have the situation in Myanmar move to a more rational place -- which in effect means pushing those governments for political change.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: What has the Chinese press told the Chinese public about the Nobel Peace Prize? Do they admit it happened or are they not reporting on it at all? I know they awarded an alternative prize to someone else in China, yet I am wondering what they are allowing the Chinese public to know about the situation and what information, if any, they are withholding.

Sam Zarifi: The Chinese government has been slamming the Nobel prize and Liu Xiaobo in the state run media. They have called the Nobel prize judges "clowns" and the ceremony a "political farce" and have attacked Liu Xiaobo as unpatriotic. They have really tried to paint a picture as the prize being a western attack on China and an attempt to impose western values on China. The government has blocked foreign coverage of the ceremony within China.

This is a shame because the prize should be celebrated by China. Liu Xiaobo loves his country and only asks that the Chinese have a greater say in their nation's future.

And from

Sam Zarifi: Continuing the response to the question about Chinese media:

in fact as far as we can tell, the Chinese government efforts to block all information about Liu Xiaobo's award has been counterproductive. If not many people knew about Liu Xiaobo before, now a lot of people will be curious to know what he said that was so dangerous that it led to BBC, CNN, and other foreign outlets being blocked.

Chinese efforts to coutner the Nobel prize with their own Confucius Peace Prize resulted in a farce when the recipient of the hastily put together award stated that he didn't know anything about the award.

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New York, N.Y.: How much of all the Noble Prize controversy is reaching the Chinese people, either through official news sources and/or Internet sources?

Sam Zarifi: Even though officially the government is blocking all news about the Nobel prize, there are a lot of tech savvy people in China who are able to get through the 'Great Chinese Firewall'. This morning we were discussing the award with people in China using social networking sites, which shows that the Chinese government can't really hold back the tide of information.

It's also important to note that there are a lot of people in China who share the basic aims of Liu Xiaobo, even if they haven't heard of him or of Charter '08 -- they see the need for a more inclusive, responsive political system.

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Sam Zarifi: We're having a technical problem with one of the questions, which was, "why did the Nobel committee provoke the chinese government?"

The Nobel committee wasn't trying to provoke the Chinese government. They were honoring the work of an activist and a writer who has asked for some pretty basic reforms.

This gave the Chinese government a great opportunity to show that it doesn't fear its own citizens.

Liu is hardly a radical. At the time he was sentenced to 11 years in prison on sedition charges, Liu told the court: "I want to say to this regime which is depriving me of my freedom ... I have no enemies and no hatred."

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Washington, D.C.: Ward Churchill was a lone voice of dissent in the days following the 9/11 attacks who argued that America should view the destruction of the World Trade Center as an opportunity for self-inspection about our economic system. The USA has fewer people than China and on 9/11 about ten times more people were killed than in ethnic rioting in Tibet recently. For these reasons, Churchill's criticisms were much more bold and controversial. Has the Nobel Committee considered awarding a prize to former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill?

Sam Zarifi: We don't know exactly how the Nobel committee makes its decision, and every year there are a number of deserving (or undeserving) individuals whose names are mentioned as possible Nobel recipients.

In the case of Liu Xiaobo, I found myself agreeing with President Obama, who said that Liu was a more deserving receipient than himself -- Liu is in many ways a perfect recipient, insofar as he has advocated for reforms in line with internationally agreed upon human rights principles, at great cost to himself.

There are many other individuals who are also deserving. It is particularly disappointing that Liu was not allowed to attend the ceremony, or even send a representative. It is very disappointing that Liu is now the only Nobel recipient who is in jail, now that Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma has been released.

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Pittsburgh, Pa. : Hi. Thanks for the chat. I've heard that some people think Liu Xiaobo was only one of many Chinese who deserved the prize. Can you tell me what you think of that? Were there other worthy contenders who were overlooked?

Sam Zarifi: Liu Xiaobo has been a consistent voice for peaceful, gradual political reform in China and he has worked tirelessly on behalf of those people with HIVAIDS, for example, as well as other people who face challenges and discrimination. But there are many others languishing in Chinese prisons who have also been forces for peace and justice. To name a couple, Chen Guangcheng is an activist who tried to organize legal action against local officials carrying out forced abortions and sterilizations in the name of the one child policy. He served four years in prison on trumped up charges because of this. And after serving his time, he continues to remain a prisoner in his own home, which is surrounded by guards.

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London, U.K.: Will the award make things easier or more difficult for Chinese rights activists in the medium-long term?

Sam Zarifi: In the short term, unfortunately there's been a massive crackdown on activists, and even on any travel deemed to be suspicious.

But as far as we can tell, many Chinese activists were proud and thrilled about this international recognition of their work and this signals to them that there is tremendous international support for them.

It also shows the Chinese government that perhaps they should take a more inclusive way forward, instead of trying to crush dissent, which has been pretty futile in the age of global communications.

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Bangalore, India: I would strongly recommend Irom Sharmila (who has been on a "fast unto death" for human rights in Manipur, India; and has been kept alive through force feeding for ten years now), as the next "empty chair."

Sam Zarifi: We hope there are no more 'empty chairs' at the Nobel ceremonies of the future. Amnesty International has struggled for 50 years to protect people who are imprisoned for their beliefs and peaceful action. As Liu's case highlights, there is still a lot of work to be done.

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Washington, D.C.: Perhaps my western mentality gets in the way, but the Chinese reaction seems irrational in the extreme, way beyond just being embarrassed. I have talked to Chinese diplomats in the past and they seem very intelligent and incisive. What could be making the Chinese powers-that-be so insecure that they are acting in such an extreme fashion?

Sam Zarifi: We are a little surprised by the Chinese reaction, which has been far less sophisticated than what we've seen in the past few years. Charter '08 and Liu are very much interested in strengthening the Chinese people and their state. The Chinese response to Liu, giving him an 11 year sentence, was considered very harsh by observers, and the response to the Nobel was also more of a tantrum than a policy. I believe in reconsidering their actions, they will have taken note of how they managed to unite critical opinions inside and outside the country.

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washingtonpost.com: This now concludes our chat with Sam Zifiri on Amnesty International. Thank you for joining.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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