Nobel Committee Resumes Relevancy

The Nobel Peace Prize has been marked by some odd choices in recent years. First, there was the climate hype of 2007, which didn’t have all that much to do with peace. Then, there was last year’s obsession with Obama, who at the time hadn’t done much besides making speeches (which he doesn’t do nearly as much or as well any longer). One might suspect that mere jealousy that Obama visited Copenhagen twice last fall spurred the Norwegians into wooing him to come to their party.

Anyway, today’s announcement cannot be said to irrelevant. Controversial, sure. But that’s the whole idea. Liu Xiaobo is the first Chinese national living in the PRC to be awarded the peace prize, or any Nobel Prize. This is ironic, given that China in its rise to global power has been obsessed for years with winning a Nobel Prize in the sciences. Now that they finally do get one, it’s awarded to a dissident serving a prison term for “inciting the subversion of state power”. He wins the prize primarily for co-authoring a petition demanding human rights, political reform, and real democracy. The same act that got him jailed in 2008.

It is comforting that the committee still has guts to challenge the powers that be. China had threatened Norway that awarding the prize to Liu would seriously damage relations between those two countries. Of course the committee is independent of the Norwegian government (probably an unknown concept to the Chinese), but essentially, this is the Nobel committee telling Red China: “Up yours!” Well, someone had to.

Naturally, the announcement has made headlines in media across the world, including CNN and BBC, but also Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. China’s national news agency, Xinhua, however, is silent. For now.

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Beijing: Boycott or Engagement?

Recent events have put China in the spotlight once again as an oppressive regime that abused human rights and what not. China’s friendliness with Sudan, their alleged oppression of minorities in Tibet, and the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing have led numerous western figures to denounce the regime, protest the Olympic torch relay and even call for boycotts of the Olympics. There is no easy answer, but let’s get real for a moment.

I don’t believe the Tibet situation has been handled very well. China should long ago have taken up on the offer to meet the Dalai Lama. He is not a separatist, and he could be the key to a peaceful normalisation if only Beijing would swallow their pride and start talking to him. While calling the crackdowns in Lhasa genocide is surely exaggerated, there probably have been mishandlings of the minority. In principle, Tibet should have the right to declare independence, but that may not even be the wish of the majority – the Dalai Lama does not call for independence, only greater autonomy.

I am also of the opinion that China (as many other nations) could do more to pressure Sudan in the case of Darfur. We should continue trying to convince China that action here is needed. Hardly a cause for boycott, though.

When it comes to freedom of speech in China, I generally take the optimistic stand that quite a lot is actually tolerated. I do not know, however, whether I would be able to write so openly on this blog if I were in China. (To any PRC readers: I’d love to hear your comments, if possible.)

These disagreements with China are to some a cause for boycotting the whole or parts of the Olympic Games. While the Olympics are a huge media event, it is still a very cheap shot for western politicians wanting to look good and human rights-oriented. The reality is that nobody can foresee a regular economic boycott – this would not be affordable to any western economy, especially not under the current downturn. Bashing the Chinese now is a hollow call with fairly few consequences.

Some then would argue that greater measures are needed. Michael D. Peabody writes today on the Spectrum Blog that free trade with China has not, as previously thought, lead to improvements on human rights, and that “as an individual consumer you do have the choice to effect a positive change in China, and you can vote with your wallet.”

I disagree. I think that human rights, while still not equal to Western Europe or America, have improved in China. And no matter what, we may never agree on which rights are fundamental. America historically have a tendency to promote on democracy and freedom of speech, while Europe is more focused on social security and living standards. Yes, China may lag behind in democracy, but their progress over the last decades in living standards, economic freedoms, quality of life, and also freedom of religion are staggering.

Furthermore, history should teach us that boycotts rarely actually give the wanted results. Think of Cuba, Iraq, North Korea, or even the Mohammad crisis. Economic sanctions sound nice and peaceful, but usually fail to deliver. There are things that we may disagree on with China, and they should not be overlooked. However, as stated previously on this blog, I believe engagement is a much more worthwhile option than boycott.

A Night at the Symphony

Last night the New York Symphony Orchestra performed in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. That event may well go down in history as a groundbreaking thaw in the relations between the rest of the world and one of the weirdest regimes the world has ever seen. So would a proposed visit by Eric Clapton later this year. Or it may, as hawks would imply, simply be seen as yet another propaganda tool by master propagandists who would make George Orwell proud.

The first group would applaud dialogue as the way forward and see cultural engagement as a boon to relations, notwithstanding the possibility of interpreting the move as a recognition of the regime.

It is funny, therefore, that the same group of people would be so critical of this fall’s Olympic Games in Beijing. Prince Charles has announced his absence from the event (for the record, he hasn’t been at the Olympics for decades). Certain people would also have Danish Prince Frederik stay home to protest human rights abuses and what not. Fortunately he has been wise not to meddle in politics and accept the fact that Denmark has good relations and many cultural and economic exchanges with the People’s Republic of China.

If engagement is the solution in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, than how much more is it so with China? This was understood by Nixon when he visited China in 1972. And by most accounts, China and North Korea are worlds apart. Both are communist by name, but China is a modern country with free markets and widely enjoyed personal freedoms. North Korea is more akin to 1984.

This is not to say that everything is perfect in China, but boycotting a country rarely produces good results on either part. The Olympic Games in Beijing will be a great leap forward for China. Whether that can also be said about last night’s concert in Pyongyang, only the future will tell.

How to Spend a Day in Hong Kong

Next Tuesday, the 16th, I’ll be in transit in Hong Kong for the better part of a day. I’ve been there a couple of times before, so I’m thinking I’ll go into the city and just wander around, maybe take the tram up to the Peak and enjoy the view. But that will probably leave me with still some hours to spend. Any other suggestions?

UPDATE: Well, in case anyone’s interested, I had a great half day.  I came in very early while it was still dark, and a little rainy, but it turned out to be a quite nice and sunny day. I have posted some pictures on flickr.

Vatican Excommunicates Two Chinese Bishops

The Vatican is excommunicating two bishops who were illegally ordained by China’s breakaway Catholic Church (BBC News). This development highlights many interesting topics, depending on your perspective.

From a sinologic viewpoint, the news here is the fact that there actually is a church on the mainland loyal to Rome, and that we’re allowed to hear of it. Ten years ago, it would not have been safe to even mention the underground church. Apart from that, China’s position is what we have come to expect: 1. Don’t interfere with our internal affairs. 2. We’d like to be your friends—just stop talking to Taiwan.

As for religious liberty, it’s a trickier case. It’s obviously a good thing that being openly Christian is no longer necessarily a problem in China. The rift here is about church authority, and whether or not to accept Vatican supremacy. What cannot be discerned is who is making this decision. Does the body of believers agree on the issue of national independence, or is the government imposing it on them? Hard to say without a 100 % free press.

In cases of church-state, who gets the final say? Luke 20:25 and Romans 13:1-7 tell us that conflict should be avoided, but at which cost? I believe that nationhood and faith collide the latter should take precedence. Some (as the right-wing Danes who insist that imams not educated in Denmark be expelled) call this fundamentalism. I call it conscience.

Many countries disapprove on a nationalist notion of any religious organisations that are deemed ‘foreign’. This has been a problem especially in Russia and former Soviet states. Religious freedom should include the right to affiliation with international bodies.

Now, from a Seventh-Day Adventist perspective, ironically we have a lot in common with the Catholic Church. We, too, are an international church and seek to protect the right to overseas affiliation, in China as elsewhere.

However the story in China is, despite occasional setbacks, a story of greatly expanding religious liberty, also for Adventists. At the General Conference in 2000, the church in China could not be spoken of openly. In 2005 they had an official membership count and delegates attending. China is not still not free in the Western sense, but religious liberty is, as so many other things in that country, expanding.

As for church structure, it is interesting to note how Seventh-Day Adventists have combined a grass-roots movement with a very hierarchical (on the face of it, at least) structure. Yes, we have democracy instead of apostolic succession for the presidency, but still a central licensing system to promote doctrinal unity. Now, unity can be a good thing, but maintaining the grass-root mentality is important. There should be no need to excommunicate anybody on the sole account that they were not appointed by us (Luke 9:49-50).