China and the Nobel peace prize
The empty chair reserved for Mr Liu at Oslo’s town hall, and the absence of any of his family members to receive the award on his behalf, made this the first such ceremony since 1936 when Carl von Ossietzky, a jailed German pacifist, was a similar no-show. Adolf Hitler refused to let him go to the ceremony. Mr Sakharov was not allowed to pick up his prize either, but his wife, Elena Bonner, happened to be abroad at the time and was able to go in his place.
China is extremely prickly about being compared with Nazi Germany. This newspaper got an earful from Chinese officials in 2001 for publishing a leader arguing that China was not suited to host the Olympic Games because “the world has no cause to honour a government that governs in this way with a sporting event intended to promote human dignity”. The Economist reminded readers of the similar position it took on the Nazis’ hosting of the Olympic Games in 1936.
Chinese officials are less touchy about Soviet analogies. Indeed, they play them up. The state-controlled Chinese media have not been bashful about casting Mr Sakharov and Mr Liu in the same light: both tools of a Western conspiracy to undermine communism (this piece, in Chinese, is typical of the genre). Never mind that Western governments, anxious to secure Chinese help with everything from global economic rebalancing to curbing climate change, have little interest in annoying China by talking about Mr Liu. China’s propaganda machinery prefers to portray the West as duplicitous.
But the propagandists probably had not fully thought through the headlines that would be created by the sweeping crackdown on dissidents since the prize was announced in October. By putting Mr Liu’s wife and numerous others under house arrest, and stopping activists from leaving the country in order to prevent them from going to Oslo, the headlines were recalibrated to reflect a comparison with 1936, not 1975 (or 1983, when Lech Walesa's wife accepted the award on his behalf, or 1991, when Aung San Suu Kyi's son took home his mother's prize). China knows that memories of Nazi Germany evoke a more visceral repugnance in the West than do those of the Soviet Union. Comparisons with Germany early in the last century are also unwelcome for Chinese leaders given their efforts to convince the world that China’s rise will have none of the same consequences that Germany’s did.
The battering suffered by the West during the global economic crisis appears to have made Chinese leaders thicker skinned. But the state-controlled media’s handling of the first “Confucius Peace Prize”, which was awarded in Beijing this week, suggests that officials remain sensitive. The Chinese press played the event down. Officials said the government did not have a hand in it (as the party-affiliated Global Times reported, in Chinese). Perhaps they might have worried that Hitler too organised a home-grown version of the Nobel prize, the German National Prize for Art and Science, in response to von Ossietzky’s award.