France opens sensitive question: who should attend Nobel ceremony honoring Liu Xiaobo

A Foreign Ministry official told the Monitor that a meeting in Brussels will center on whether it is appropriate to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honoring jailed laureate Liu Xiaobo, and, if so, who exactly should go.

Lionel Cironneau/AP
Demonstrators hold placards to protest the visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao in Nice, southeastern France, on Nov. 5. Placard reads 'Release Liu Xiaobo, 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner.'

France will hold a meeting in Brussels to develop a common European position on whether or not states should attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for Chinese reformer Liu Xiaobo – and whether European states, if they go, should be represented by their ambassadors, or if lower-level diplomats should be present instead.

The French initiative follows a visit to Europe, including Paris, by Chinese President Hu Jintao. It also follows a warning letter from China to European ambassadors in Norway, requesting them not to attend the Dec. 10 Nobel ceremony in Oslo.

China’s G20 negotiator Cui Tiankai last week said states that attend the award ceremony honoring Mr. Liu must be ready to “accept the consequences.” Liu is currently serving an 11-year sentence in China for “subversion” in co-authoring “Charter ‘08," a manifesto promoting basic human rights and political reform.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner told French RTL radio this morning that French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Mr. Hu discussed human rights on top of signing $20 billion in trade deals. Mr. Kouchner added that, “I hope France will be represented at the prize-giving ceremony in spite of Beijing's warnings,” but said France would be “consulting its European friends for a common response.”

A French Foreign Ministry official separately told the Monitor that an upcoming meeting in Brussels will center on two questions: whether it is appropriate to attend the Nobel Prize ceremony, and if so, “whether ambassadors should attend, or should it be at the level of charges d’affaires."

“We have weeks and weeks to decide this,” the Foreign Ministry official said adding that a Brussels meeting is set to take place in coming days.

Common ground, or a climb-down from European principles?

It is not clear whether France has decided Europe does not have a common-enough position on the Nobel award to Liu – or whether it is pausing, or bending, to Chinese requests in the wake of Hu’s visit.

Michael Davis, law professor at the University of Hong Kong and a human rights specialist, argues that it would be “a huge climb down” for European nations to bend to China’s threat – and would “implicate their own [European] principles.”

“Liu Xiaobo in Charter ’08 took a moderate position on political reform that Europe has long stood for. If the Union of Europe stands for anything in foreign relations, it is its principles, and those will be implicated if European states back away,” adding that “Liu has been criticized in his own circles for being too idealistic about European democracy. If states do not attend, Liu may end up more willing to defend European values than Europeans.”

In response to China’s warning last week, a number of the 27 European Union nations stated they will send ambassadors to the ceremony, including Britain, Estonia, Lithuania, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.

Germany has said it will send a deputy ambassador.

China's escalating series of responses

China has reacted to the Norwegian Nobel committee Peace Prize honoring Liu with an escalating series of aggressive and blistering responses. Liu’s “Charter ’08” calls for multiparty elections and a greater level of free expression in China – including that “words no longer be treated as crimes.” Beijing officials last week said the prize was organized by “those who fear the rise of China,” and called it a “political card played by the United States and some European countries.”

Many China analysts argue that China’s growing international clout allows it more leverage to take assertive positions. UN chief Ban Ki-moon was criticized outside China last week for not raising Liu's case in his trip to Beijing.

But China’s rise and strength may only be part of the story. As Ian Buruma notes in a recent Guardian newspaper piece titled “What is driving China’s thuggish approach to foreign relations,” Chinese leaders are aware that growing nationalism at home represents a threat to the legitimacy of the Communist Party, and efforts at reform could have uncertain effect: "nationalism in China, promoted through schools, mass media, and ‘patriotic’ monuments and museums, means one thing: only the firm rule of the CCP will prevent foreigners, especially Westerners and the Japanese, from humiliating Chinese ever again….This is why anyone, even a relatively unknown intellectual like Liu Xiaobo, who challenges the legitimacy of Communist Party rule by demanding multiparty elections, must be crushed.”

French officials said the contracts inked with China on Hu's visit involve corporations including Airbus, Total, and Areva. Some French media, however, report that part of the total amount involves reaffirmation of contracts originally inked in 2007.

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