Timothy Garton Ash: This Nobel Prize was Bold and Right – But Hits China's Most Sensitive Nerve

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist.]

Norway's Nobel peace prize committee has done the right thing in awarding this year's prize to Liu Xiaobo. The furious reaction of the Chinese state shows just how complicated doing the right thing will become as we advance into an increasingly post-western world.

Liu Xiaobo is exactly the kind of person who deserves this prize, alongside Andrei Sakharov, Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. For more than 20 years, he has consistently advocated nonviolent change in China, always in the direction of more respect for human rights, the rule of law and democracy. He has paid for this peaceful advocacy with years of imprisonment and harassment. Unlike last year's winner, Barack Obama, who got the prize just for what he had promised to do, Liu gets it for what he has actually done.

The Chinese government tried hard to prevent him getting it. They directly threatened the Nobel committee with negative consequences for Chinese-Norwegian relations . They have since described the award as an "obscenity", forbidden any mention of it in the censored Chinese media, placed Liu's wife under house arrest, detained other critical intellectuals, cancelled talks about Norwegian fishery exports to China – and are now doubtless debating, at the highest level, how to play it from here. Will they, for instance, allow his wife, the photographer Liu Xia, to travel to Oslo to receive the prize on behalf of her imprisoned husband?

Meanwhile, in the capitals of the west, many are quietly questioning whether this really was such a good decision. These questions are important and need to be addressed, but one hypocritical or self-deceiving argument must be demolished at once. This is the claim that it will not be good even for the dissidents if a leading dissident receives the Nobel prize. One used to hear a similar case made by western politicians who, for example, declined to meet Sakharov, Lech Walesa or Václav Havel. Commenting on an American elder statesman's visit to Moscow, one Russian writer told me: "He says it would not be good for Sakharov if they met, but what he really means is that it would not be good for him if he met Sakharov."

It is for the dissidents to decide what is good for the dissidents...

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