The Nobel Crackdown

Beijing's far-reaching efforts to keep Chinese supporters of Liu Xiaobo from attending the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo reveal an increasingly anxious undercurrent in China.

On Dec. 10, for the first time since 1936, when Nazi Germany prevented Carl von Ossietzky from traveling to Norway to receive his Nobel Peace Prize, neither the laureate nor any of his family members will be able to attend the Nobel ceremony in Oslo.

Liu Xiaobo, this year's Nobel Peace Prize winner, is serving an 11-year sentence in a prison in northeastern China, after being convicted one year ago of "inciting subversion to state power." His wife, Liu Xia, is forcibly confined at home in Beijing by the police, and prevented from talking publicly under threat of losing her right to visit Liu. All the principal signatories and co-drafters of Charter 08 -- the manifesto calling for bottom-up political reforms that prompted Liu's arrest in December 2008 -- are under tight police surveillance, prevented from assembling, giving interviews to the media, or traveling abroad.

In selecting Liu in the face of pressure from Beijing, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has laid bare the Chinese government's overt hostility to human rights norms, at home and abroad. Since the prize was awarded in early October, the Chinese Communist Party has embarked on a sweeping crackdown on dissidents. Scores of Chinese citizens have been detained, placed under house arrested, or prevented from travelling to the ceremony in Oslo. But the prize and the ensuing clampdown may turn out to have profound consequences for how the world views China, and China's own ability to pursue its foreign-policy objectives.

In the days that followed the announcement of the prize, Liu Xia managed to circulate a letter expressing her desire to see Liu's friends and supporters attend the ceremony in Oslo; her letter included a list of more than a hundred names: Chinese writers, lawyers, academics, journalists, former party cadres, artists, and NGO activists, many with a distinguished record of patiently and peacefully challenging the limits of the one-party system. But after the letter became public, Chinese authorities informed each of those living in China that they would not be permitted to go. Some have been placed under police monitoring or confined at their homes with a retinue of police officers camping outside their doors. Countless other rights activists across the country have been harassed, summoned for questioning, or detained by the Public Security Bureau or state security officers. (The advocacy group China Human Rights Defender has compiled a helpful list of cases.)

Several prominent figures known for their outspoken views, including world-renowned artist Ai Weiwei, the top legal scholar He Weifang, China's famous criminal lawyer Mo Shaoping, and 80-year old economist Mao Yushi, have been banned from traveling ahead of the ceremony on the rationale advanced by border-security officials that such trips would "jeopardize national security."

The Chinese government has multiple motives for imposing such a radical clampdown. It wants to minimize the significance and legitimacy of the prize, especially in the eyes of Chinese citizens living abroad and therefore immune to the government's massive domestic censorship effort. It wants to prevent signatories of Charter 08 from speaking to a global audience in Oslo, and to deny Chinese domestic rights activists a platform where they could speak with authority about the country's dismal human rights record. Equally importantly, it wants to facilitate the government's propaganda effort at fanning nationalist sentiment through the portrayal of the prize as a conspiracy by "the West" designed to hobble China's rise in the world. Although there have been many voices inside China supporting the decision of the Nobel Committee, the government's pervasive Internet censorship has effectively airbrushed them from domestic cyberspace.

In reality, this unprecedented clampdown is unlikely to help Beijing's damage-control efforts. On Dec. 10, global public opinion will likely be aghast as a wider audience learns that the laureate's wife has now become a virtual prisoner in her own home. The reputation of China's legal system will take another nosedive as it becomes apparent that the government discarded all legal pretense in putting activists under effective house arrest, while calling Liu a "criminal." And the Nobel Committee's decision to honor a Chinese human rights advocate will appear all the more justified precisely because of the anti-human rights response from Beijing.

Even more problematic for Beijing is the Nobel Committee's decision not to formally award the prize at the ceremony on Dec. 10 because no one in Liu Xiaobo's family will be allowed to receive it. (Only one of the Chinese activists close to Liu, AIDS activist Wan Yanhai, will be present in Oslo on Friday.)

Admittedly, China's rulers might be ready to withstand the inevitable international blowback. After all, the regime withstood such opprobrium following the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize that year to the Dalai Lama.

But the ham-fisted response to the Nobel crisis has dramatically undermined Beijing's post-Tiananmen efforts to rehabilitate its image. Language unbecoming of a world power used to characterize the Nobel Committee members ("little clowns," in the words of Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu) has only made Beijing's predicament worse. Beijing's attempt to threaten European Union members through official diplomatic channels not to send their ambassadors to the Nobel ceremony has also ruffled feathers. This move has raised the stakes for EU countries -- to stay away would be understood as bowing to naked pressure -- and has turned what was routine attendance into a symbolic rebuke of Chinese interference. Although Beijing has insisted that a "vast majority" of countries would not attend the ceremony, so far only 18 have declined, including Cuba, Iran, and Russia.

Beijing may even further embarrass itself if the Chinese Embassy in Oslo goes ahead with its current plan to organize Chinese students to stage a counterdemonstration outside the ceremony venue. The irony of Chinese citizens legitimately exercising a right in Norway that the government denies them at home will not be lost on journalists and other observers.

Keeping a Nobel laureate in prison also has both immediate and long-term implications for China's diplomacy.

First, it becomes harder for China's interlocutors to sweep aside human rights in bilateral or multilateral relations. Democratic governments the world over will find themselves under pressure from human rights groups to raise Liu's case as long as he is imprisoned. For years, the reaction of foreign diplomats asked to press Beijing on human rights has been to throw up their hands and claim that they didn't know what they could achieve -- but now they know one thing: gaining Liu's release. The pressure will also increase in international rights forums, where direct criticism of China has become weaker and weaker. It will be difficult, for instance, for the U.N. high commissioner on human rights, Navanethem Pillay, who has declined to attend the Nobel ceremony in Oslo, to avoid mentioning Liu when she gives her address on International Human Rights Day on Dec. 10 without appearing to have bowed to Chinese pressure.

Second, the situation may well create a host of awkward interactions when Chinese leaders travel abroad. Hu Jintao's refusal to hold the customary press conference at the end of his visit to France last month seems to illustrate the Chinese president's fear of being asked embarrassing questions about the imprisoned Nobel laureate.

Third, having become the only country in world with a Nobel Peace Prize laureate currently in prison will hobble China's quest for soft power -- which the Chinese government sees as a necessary attribute of a rising global hegemon. Neither the considerable expansion of the Chinese state media abroad nor the multiplication of Confucius institutes -- government-funded Chinese-language programs established within foreign academic institutions -- is likely to soften China's authoritarian image or make its political system appealing if it keeps Liu in prison for the next decade. Demands for his release are unlikely to decrease over the years, as Aung San Suu Kyi's release from house arrest more than two decades after she received the Nobel Peace Prize demonstrates.

Liu's sentence is actually emblematic of the new dynamics of power within the Chinese leadership under the Hu-Wen team. In contrast to the reform era, which saw the struggle between "reformists" and "conservatives," the only debates within the leadership today seem to be about how to strengthen the existing system. The numbers speak for themselves.  The budget of the Public Security Ministry has increased 50 percent between 2008 and 2010, and according to figures from the Ministry of Finance, the overall budget allocated to "maintaining stability" is estimated to be equivalent to the entire budget of the armed forces. The recently leaked State Department cables from the U.S. Embassy in Beijing that attribute the attacks against Google as having been prompted by the displeasure of the head of the Propaganda Department at finding himself criticized online, if accurate, provide a striking illustration of the enormous power gains made by leaders of the security apparatus in recent years.

This is why the Nobel Committee should be commended. In awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, it has directed a powerful spotlight onto the hard reality of the single-party state in China and forced Beijing to reveal publicly how intolerant of dissent and how hostile to human rights norms and the free flow of information it remains. Although the Chinese government will do its utmost to cast the ceremony on Dec. 10 as a Western attempt to impose its values on China, the reality is that China's rulers are deeply afraid of the increasingly assertive demands of their own people for what underpins real stability: the rule of law, the free flow of information, and respect for fundamental human rights.

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The Tea Party's Vendetta

After two years of Obama's foreign policy pragmatism toward Latin America, Republicans in Congress are threatening to turn back the clock to Cold War times. That would be a disaster for the United States and its neighbors.

The recent midterm election in the United States didn't just put the Republican Party in a greater position of influence over U.S. domestic policy -- it also gave a small section of southern Florida significant power over the country's diplomacy toward Latin America. The new Congress's influential House Committee on Foreign Affairs will likely be chaired by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), who represents the Miami area, while the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere will likely be led by Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), who represents the nearby Fort Myers area. Both lawmakers are throwback Latin American cold warriors, catering to their Cuban-American constituents with belligerent policies toward any neighboring government that seeks independence from U.S. influence. Needless to say, what's satisfying for this narrow segment of Floridians won't be in the United States' greater national interest.

The duo's intransigence will be most felt in terms of the five-decade-old embargo against Cuba, on which Ros-Lehtinen and Mack have refused to compromise, though most objective analysts have questioned the policy's strategic and tactical sense. They have also indicated that they will push President Barack Obama's administration to end its attempt at nuanced diplomacy in Latin America and replace it with the George W. Bush administration's simplistic policy of dividing the region into "friends" and "enemies." Obama seemed to acknowledge the folly of this black-and-white approach to the region when he spoke of an "equal partnership" with the region and said that "we cannot let ourselves be prisoners of past disagreements" in a 2009 speech at the Summit of the Americas.

But if certain members of Congress think they can drive a wedge among the countries of the region, they are mistaken. Latin American countries have been expanding their ties with one another -- including a recent rapprochement between Venezuela and Colombia -- and there is a deepening consensus that their differences should be worked out in an atmosphere of mutual respect. (The inaugural co-chairs of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, a regional organization set to be founded in 2011, are Chile and Venezuela, two countries that don't see eye to eye on everything, but are willing to cooperate.) For instance, even though the United States opposed Cuba's entry to the Organization of American States, the group last year approved its readmittance. If Washington, instead of accepting this new reality, relies on antagonistic foreign-policy dogma to placate local constituencies, it will only lose in regional and global influence.

Now is an especially inopportune time for the United States to alienate its southern neighbors. Latin American countries are gaining in confidence and increasing their political and economic connections with the rest of the world, both regionally through organizations like UNASUR and bilaterally with countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. It's not just Latin America that needs the United States anymore; increasingly, the United States needs Latin America.

Unfortunately, Ros-Lehtinen and Mack are hard-line ideologues. Given that she once called for Fidel Castro's assassination, it's no surprise that Ros-Lehtinen is an anti-Cuba hawk. But she has in recent years also become more aggressive toward Venezuela. This year, for example, she made unsubstantiated accusations against Venezuela for serving as a conduit between the rebel group Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and al Qaeda. In a March 11 interview with the Council of the Americas, Gen. Douglas Fraser, chief of U.S. Southern Command, debunked those claims in no uncertain terms: "I don't see any evidence of terrorist activity within Latin America or the Caribbean from outside of the region."

Even more disturbing was Ros-Lehtinen's meeting with Venezuelan terrorist Raúl Díaz in Miami several months ago. Díaz had just arrived in the United States after escaping prison in Venezuela, where he was serving a sentence for participating in the 2003 bombings of the Spanish and Colombian consulates in Caracas. It is troubling that Ros-Lehtinen would think it appropriate to use the powers of her office to extend legitimacy to a violent criminal simply because he opposes Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. (Venezuela has yet to receive any answers on how Díaz could have been granted a visa to enter the United States in the first place.)

Ros-Lehtinen has also remained conspicuously quiet on Luis Posada Carriles, a Venezuelan-Cuban dual national wanted in Venezuela for the 1973 bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner that left 73 innocent people dead. Posada snuck into the United States in 2005 after years of clandestine operations in Central America and Cuba, many for the CIA. He now lives in South Florida awaiting the start of a postponed trial on immigration-related charges. Venezuela's repeated requests for extradition have remained unanswered.

But in terms of anti-Venezuelan enmity, Ros-Lehtinen is outdone by Mack, who, though newer to the House, has quickly established himself as the Republicans' go-to hard liner on Chávez. He has called Chávez a "sworn enemy of the United States" and more recently called on Obama to deal with the "inherent threat that Chávez poses to our nation and the region."

More shockingly, though, Mack has twice introduced resolutions to have Venezuela added to the U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, a move supported by Ros-Lehtinen. Just recently, I received letters from a number of the 37 right-wing congressmen supporting Mack's most recent attempt. Seeing as most have never shown any interest in Venezuela, it is clear that extremists within the Republican caucus have made my country a political priority.

If Venezuela does indeed end up on the terrorism list, it would amount to the imposition of a Cuba-like embargo on the country. Commerce and oil would be disrupted, and even cursory financial and economic transactions would be made prohibitively expensive. It would also put the large U.S.-Venezuelan commercial relationship -- the countries' trade with one another from January through September of this year totaled nearly $31 billion -- in jeopardy. And it would serve as more evidence that some policymakers in Washington use the "terrorist" label as a cudgel against their political foes. It should come as no surprise that a 2008 report prepared by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee adamantly warned against manipulating the terrorism list in that way, stating that "policymakers must be wary of the implications of poorly thought-out sanctions which might isolate the United States."

Ros-Lehtinen and Mack are not alone in advocating for a Cold War-era stance toward Latin America. In fact, they're being educated and enabled by a chorus of similarly hard-line former Bush administration officials.

Chief among them are Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, both of whom served as assistant secretaries of state for Western Hemisphere affairs under Bush. Reich has a long track record of using the battle over Cuba to determine U.S. policy toward the entire region, while Noriega honed his skills as a foreign-policy aide to late Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and currently works at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute.

Most recently -- on this very website -- Noriega has been claiming that Venezuela is working with Iran on a nuclear-weapons program, a claim so outlandish that the only prominent public figures who repeated it were John Bolton (another hard-line Bush administration official) in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times and Jackson Diehl, the deputy editor of the Washington Post's editorial pages and a crusader against anything that has to do with Chávez. (Recently released cables from U.S. embassies in Latin America admit that these charges are "likely baseless," as a Post article put it.) In a recent op-ed, Noriega also called Chávez the "deadly kingpin of a criminal regime."

It might be easy to call Noriega and Reich out-of-touch extremists, but their views now hold greater sway on Capitol Hill and at many Washington think tanks. For example, a Nov. 17 conference in Washington, organized by the Interamerican Institute for Democracy and called "Danger in the Andes," was a forum for outlandish views to be exchanged by ostensibly serious policy analysts. The guests of honor at the conference? Ros-Lehtinen and Mack, of course.

Now that the Republicans are no longer marginalized in Congress, dogma threatens to totally trump the greater U.S. national interest. That would be terrible for Americans, and their neighbors to the south. The remaining pragmatists in Washington should do everything in their power to prevent it.

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