Václav Havel Speaks about Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Prize

Václav Havel

Interview with Aftenposten (Norway)

1. How did you react when you were told that Liu Xiaobo was this year’s Nobel Peace Prize Winter?

I was very pleased and heartened, of course. I am sure it’s an excellent choice – and not only because he was nominated by me and other friends.

2. Charter 08 is modelled on Charta 77. In what respect is China today similar to Eastern Europe in the 1970s?

There is a certain difference as the world has greatly changed over the past thirty years. Interestingly, however, some of the reactions and measures of the Chinese leadership are very similar to those we experienced at the height of the Communist dictatorship in Central Europe. We were also asked by western journalists why we  did all those things; after all there was only a handful of us and the Communists held all political power, including the army, the police and the media.  My response to that was always to say that no one knows precisely what happens beneath the surface of society, that there are no statistics and if there were, they would be twisted. Sometimes it only takes a little snowball to unleash an avalanche. After all, economic growth is only one face of China. But we here also have the experience of previous generations. The Prague Spring of 1968 came twenty years after the Communist take-over of power in the former Czechoslovakia. At that time it was crushed by Soviet tanks. Twenty years later, in 1989, that was no longer possible for various reasons. The twenty years that have elapsed since the Tiananmen Square massacre suggest that the stirrings in Chinese society and the criticism that we have witnessed are not fortuitous. It is impossible to tell when or how it will begin, but frequently it arrives very unobtrusively.

3. What effect might Liu’s prize have on human rights in China?

That is hard to estimate, but I know for certain that it will be a boost to all those calling for adherence to the Constitution and respect for fundamental human and civil rights. Even in a country as large and powerful as that, it will not be easy to conceal the fate of the persecuted in the future.  There are no grounds for the view that the decision of the Nobel Committee will be detrimental to the Chinese human rights defenders. Silence, oblivion and indifference have never yet assisted the persecuted and imprisoned – on the contrary. It will not be easy now for the Chinese government to convince the public about its country’s historic ambitions and demand international respect, when it imprisons the holder of a prestigious international prize.  But both the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo and the house arrest of Mrs Liu Xia are extremely shortsighted and will attract further attention. Liu Xiaobo’s case is also important because the Chinese government did not anticipate such international attention. That is why the trial is due to be held during our Christmas holidays. I would recall that Charter 77 also came into being in protest against the conviction of members of the Plastic People of the Universe rock band and our Communists also did not anticipate that someone would stand up for such non-conformist musicians, let alone people with academic titles.

4. What do you think of China’s reaction to Liu being announced as this year’s winner? Do they have a point when they say that this is interference in their internal affairs?

“Interference in internal affairs” is the reaction that is used over and over again by all totalitarian governments. Civil liberties and respect for human rights have never harmed any country in the world, however – on the contrary. Human rights are universal and national frontiers have no significance for them in that respect.

5. It has emerged recently that Norway’s foreign minister, Mr. Jonas Gahr Støre, informed the Nobel committee chairman, Mr. Thorbjørn Jagland, about the consequences for Norway in late September if the prize should be awarded to a Chinese dissident. Støre told Jagland about a meeting he had just had with the Chinese foreign minister, in which Støre had been warned about a strong Chinese reaction. How do you feel about Norway’s foreign minister’s warning to Jagland? Is it problematic that a representative of the Norwegian government acts as a middle man between the Chinese government and the Nobel committee?

I have no information about that specific matter. All I know is that China issued a warning to the Norwegian government before the Nobel Committee took its decision. It strikes me that the choice of the Nobel Committee is particularly estimable in that it refused to be intimidated. I don’t rule out the possibility that the Chinese warning had more the effect of inspiring its choice.

6. Why did you choose to nominate Liu Xiaobo? How is he different from other Chinese democracy activists?

Of course one could think of many other activists who would merit being honoured – and not just in China. I think that the members of the Nobel Committee could have stories of sleepless nights, because it must be very difficult or even impossible to choose between the candidates. I tend to think that  the prize should go in preference to those who pursue their activity in the face of difficult conditions and adversity. They should take precedence over those whose defence of human and civil rights is part of their job description, so to speak, and who are paid for it. Moreover, my friends and I have a particular affinity with Mr Liu Xiaobo, because he was inspired by Charter 77.

7. Do you find the Nobel Committee’s decision to be brave?

What was brave above all was the stand taken by a hundred Chinese intellectuals and academics, followed by three hundred Chinese citizens, who publicly signed the request for him to receive the award. As I’ve already said, I value the decision of the Nobel Committee; it was correct and the grounds it gave were well-considered and responsible. It is also an encouragement for the defence of human rights in the world in general. Just lately, the impression I have been getting is that it is an issue that is simply tolerated unwillingly, an issue that is totally subordinated to economic interests. But who else but ourselves, who live in conditions of freedom, should stand up for the rights and freedoms of those who do not share our good fortune?

8. China has gained much economic and political power over the last decades. Are Western countries too afraid of China’s anger to challenge the Chinese government on their human rights abuses?

The policy of the European countries and the entire European Union is excessively cautious and pusillanimous. When I received His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1990 as the first head of state to do so, and thereby openly supported his peaceful endeavours in favour of Tibet’s cultural autonomy, the newspapers were full of criticism about how I was undermining trade with China. Nothing of the sort happened, of course. It was limited to just a few threats, and the Chinese vice-premier and foreign minister actually paid me a visit afterwards, showing that they thought our small Central European country worthy of receiving a personal explanation of China’s policy towards Tibet. My feeling is that in spite of its strong language, a world power such as China respects self-assured opponents. But it will despise those who kneel before it.

9. What is your impression of the Obama administration’s attitude towards human rights abuses in China?

I believe that President Obama knows what he is doing. Otherwise he would not have received the Nobel Peace Prize.

10. You didn’t receive the Peace Prize yourself. Could Liu’s prize be described as the second-best thing for you?

Perhaps I should remind you that in 1990, just after I took office as Czechoslovak President, I suggested the leader of the Burmese opposition Aung San Suu Kyi to the Nobel committee. On that occasion she did indeed receive the Nobel Peace Prize. That was my other successful nomination. Both give me enormous pleasure, because they are precisely the sort of people who merit the prize. But I cannot be pleased at the fact that they are both still in prison.

11. I guess you are not finished fighting for Liu. How will you continue this fight?

At present we are waiting for the reaction of the Chinese government, particularly whether it will permit Mrs Liu Xia to accept the prize and if she will be allowed to return home safely. Nevertheless  I think it would be important that calls for the release of Liu Xiaobo be heard from all cultural and religious spheres around the world. After all there are people everywhere in the world who have experience with the violation of human rights.

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