By MICHAEL WINES
The New York Times
Published: December 8, 2010
Carlos H. Conde contributed reporting from Manila, and Seth Mydans from Bangkok. Li Bibo contributed research from Beijing.
BEIJING — It was just before Christmas 2009, and Ding Xiaowen was not happy.
The United States ambassador had just written China’s foreign minister expressing concern for Liu Xiaobo, the Beijing intellectual imprisoned a year earlier for drafting a pro-democracy manifesto. Now Mr. Ding, a deputy in the ministry’s American section, was reading the riot act to an American attaché.
Mr. Ding said he would try to avoid “becoming emotional,” according to a readout on the meeting that was among thousands of leaked State Department cables released this month. Then he said that a “strongly dissatisfied” China firmly opposed the views of the American ambassador, Jon Huntsman, and that Washington must “cease using human rights as an excuse to ‘meddle’ in China’s internal affairs.”
On Friday, exactly one year after Mr. Huntsman wrote his protest, Mr. Liu, now serving an 11-year prison sentence for subversion, will receive the Nobel Peace Prize in a ceremony that he is unable to attend. And if anything is clear, it is that China no longer resists becoming emotional.
In the two months since the Nobel committee honored Mr. Liu, China has waged an extraordinary and unprecedented campaign, domestically and internationally, to discredit the award and to dissuade other governments from endorsing it.
It sent diplomats to capitals worldwide, sometimes to two and three offices, to warn that attendance at the awards ceremony in Oslo would be a black mark on relations with China. It staged a briefing for its neighbors, the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to make clear its unhappiness with the award. It has punished Norway, the site of the ceremony, by suspending trade negotiations.
On the Chinese island of Hainan last month, State Councilor Dai Bingguo, China’s most powerful foreign policy figure, bluntly told Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that his government regarded the Nobel award as an American conspiracy to embarrass Beijing.
Perhaps most strikingly, China’s media and spokespeople have trained a stream of vitriol on the award and its sponsors. The prize is “an anti-China farce” and its sponsors are “clowns,” a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, said this week at a briefing. Honoring Mr. Liu is “a crazy act,” “a political tool” and “a trick that a few radical people use to entertain themselves,” the Communist Party tabloid Global Times reported Wednesday.
On Oct. 15, after the award was announced, the state-run news service Xinhua called the Nobel decision “a desecration of the rule of law” and Mr. Liu an opportunist who had “tried his best to maintain the Western hegemony of his Western masters and make China a vassal of the West.”
And on Tuesday, a somewhat murky Beijing group announced a counter-Nobel, the Confucius Peace Prize, apparently in response to a Global Times commentary last month that called for an Eastern alternative to prizes based on values it said were Western.
At least 19 governments, most of them staunch China allies like Myanmar, North Korea and Russia, have decided to boycott the Nobel ceremony on Friday. But the list also includes the Philippines, whose president, Benigno S. Aquino III, has been an advocate of human rights in places like Myanmar, where China holds great influence.
Philippine press reports quoted diplomats on Wednesday as saying that Manila opted out of the ceremony because it did not want to annoy China, already angered over a bungled hostage rescue in August that left eight Hong Kong residents dead.
But a senior adviser to Mr. Aquino, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter, said that Foreign Secretary Alberto G. Romulo “did it without telling us.” The adviser called the move “a clumsy attempt to balance the administration’s more distant stance on China.”
“This administration will be a voice for human rights in this part of the world,” the official said, “and now, this.”
Why China’s leaders have made Mr. Liu’s award a foreign policy red line is far from clear. Political analysts and scholars variously suggested that Mr. Liu’s manifesto, Charter 08, was too radical and represented a threat, that China’s newfound global prominence had given it an oversize impression of its influence and that party leaders were toeing a hard nationalist position as jockeying began for a new leadership in 2012.
Dozens of leaked State Department cables made it apparent that American diplomats closely followed the travails of Mr. Liu and other activists and regularly pressed Chinese officials to honor international norms for basic freedoms, even as Washington muted its public position on Chinese behavior.
Embassy officials also met frequently with Mr. Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, and friends to monitor his case and the increase in repression of political dissidents.
As early as two weeks after Mr. Liu was first detained, President George W. Bush’s ambassador, Clark T. Randt Jr., “urged the Chinese government to release him and stop harassing peaceful dissidents,” a Dec. 29, 2008, cable stated.
The next June, as the Chinese government announced Mr. Liu’s formal arrest on subversion charges, embassy officials expressed “grave concern” and again called for his release. On Dec. 9, 2009, shortly before Mr. Liu was convicted, Mr. Huntsman met with five Chinese human rights lawyers; he sent a letter to the foreign minister the next day calling on the government “to respect those rights it had itself guaranteed in the PRC constitution and to protect internationally recognized freedoms for all Chinese citizens.”
That letter led to Mr. Ding’s dressing-down of the attaché 11 days later. According to the cable, Mr. Ding said then that Mr. Huntsman’s letter contained “inappropriate comments” on Mr. Liu’s case and that “certain ‘so-called’ human rights lawyers and dissidents had sought to advance their ‘selfish interests’ ” by attacking the Beijing government.
“In a lengthy and disjointed digression,” the cable added, Mr. Ding said that regardless of rights to speak and assemble freely, the most fundamental human rights were to food and shelter. And “in this area it was ‘a basic fact’ that the PRC had made huge progress.”
The American attaché’s response, the cable stated, was that “U.S. concerns over abuses of internationally recognized human rights norms remained.”