Transregional Center for Democratic Studies

Letter from Joburg, October 11, 2010

Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize

The air in Johannesburg (Joburg to the locals) is full of discussions on this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. When I heard about Liu Xiaobo, I thought about events that took place in Poland 30 years ago, and about a message written by workers on strike in the Gdansk Shipyard in August 1980.

One of their most prominent graffiti, written in huge, uneven letters on cardboard and mounted high up on a shipyard crane, was the statement, uncontroversial elsewhere, A Man is Born and Lives Free., This year’s Nobel Peace Prize given to a Chinese political prisoner brings the spirit of this graffiti to China, re-inserting it in a landscape freely, filled with billboards advertising Western luxury brands like Lanc√¥me or Mercedes Benz. Will the Chinese notice the message?

There are those moments in history when the Nobel Prizes turn out to be truly performative.

When Czeslaw Milosz, whose poetry was forbidden in communist Poland, received the Nobel Prize in Literature in October 1980, it seemed to lend further legitimacy to the democratic aspirations of the workers as articulated in the Gdansk shipyard. The poems of Milosz had only been published underground and the workers had come to know them through their strike bulletins. And now the workers, who had demanded a constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech, press, and publication, won their strike, and the poems , arrested till then in the Office of Censorship , became widely available. I have no doubt that the award given to the poet who wrote about freedom and captivity further encouraged the human rights agenda of the Solidarity movement, and contributed ‘ even if only for the 16 months of Solidarity’s legal existence , to the unprecedented sense of emancipation in the country.

Those 16 months of Solidarity were a time when Poles experienced the dignity of personal freedom. They were months of intensive learning that paid off in 1989 when the society launched a deliberately peaceful process of dismantling the authoritarian system.

But 1989 brought not only the joyous image of the Berlin Wall being taken down, but also horrifying images of the Tiananmen Square massacre, where tanks charged defenseless students demanding democratic reforms.

Would the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to one of the students at Tiananmen Square, Liu Xiaobo, bring new strength to those who sat there with him, those who looked on, and those who are younger and know little about the students trying to stop tanks?

While I was finishing this note, trying to return to my reflection on performativity, I received an email with a piece on the Nobel Peace Prize written just a moment ago in Warsaw by Adam Michnik, one of the Solidarity movement’s leaders, for today’s Gazeta Wyborcza, the second-biggest newspaper in Poland. I opened it quickly, as I know that he traveled to China this July, and I’d like to end with a brief excerpt by this seasoned political thinker, lifelong dissident, and former political prisoner:

I was struck in China by a vast change that is rarely reported on by the world’s media , the newly independent public opinion, and the embryonic civil society emerging there. Liu Xiaobo, the Laureate of the Peace prize and a political prisoner, was one of the creators of this public opinion and civil society. He paid a high price for this ‘ the price of discrimination, loneliness, and imprisonment. Liu deserves admiration and respect, as he is one of those people who restore a belief in the existence of elementary values.,


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