It is very heartening that twelve United States lawmakers nominated Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, Alex Chow and the Umbrella Movement for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The nomination comes at a time when the pro-democracy movement is under sustained attack by the Chinese Communist Party and Hong Kong government. Their primary means of attack are criminal prosecutions of pro-democracy leaders and activists and disqualifications from candidacy and elected office. Through these means, they have barred all groups which grew out of the Umbrella Movement from participating in the formal political system and are attempting to destroy the groups they find the most threatening. They intend especially to intimidate young people against getting involved in politics, in the classic Communist ploy of “killing the chicken to scare the monkeys.”
All three of the leaders singled out in the nomination were sentenced to prison (Joshua to 9 months in two different cases, Alex to seven, and Nathan to eight) in relation to their role in occupying Civic Square on September 26, 2014, triggering the start of the Umbrella Movement two days later. On February 6, their prison sentences were overturned by the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal, nearly two years after the trial began on February 29, 2016. Joshua is now awaiting the appeal hearing of his other, three-month prison sentence. In addition, Nathan was disqualified from the Legislative Council along with five other pro-democracy lawmakers after having won the seats in the only democratic elections Hong Kong had.
It was especially gratifying that the US lawmakers praised the nominees for, among other things, fighting for self-determination in the very same week that the pro-democracy candidate for the Hong Kong Island Legislative Council by-election in March, Agnes Chow, was barred from running on the grounds that she and her party, Demosistō, advocate self-determination. She was seeking to fill the seat left vacant by the disqualification of Nathan. Self-determination is in fact a basic human right. According to the Hong Kong government, it does not comply with the Basic Law even though the international treaties which guarantee it are enshrined in the Basic Law.
But being politically persecuted—prosecuted, disqualified, intimidated, vilified and physically assaulted (assailants have been convicted for attacks on both Joshua and Nathan)— is in itself insufficient grounds for winning the Nobel Peace Prize.
True, the persecuted make up an illustrious list of laureates, including, just in recent decades, Liu Xiaobo, Shirin Ebadi, Kim Dae-jung, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Rigoberta Menchú, Desmond Tutu and Lech Walesa, and these, it’s safe to say, have been amongst the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s best choices. But they won not primarily because they were persecuted but because they were freedom fighters and human rights defenders under oppressive regimes.
Joshua, Nathan and Alex certainly fit that description, and there are plenty of positive reasons the three young men and the Umbrella Movement should join that revered group of laureates. The US lawmakers have already written an eloquent letter to the Norwegian Nobel Committee outlining those reasons, and the statement the three made in response to the nomination also makes their Peace Prize-deserving qualities abundantly clear.
Following on that, there are a few other arguments in their favor, which can be summarized in the following sentence: They are young people taking the future of their society into their own hands and collaboratively leading ordinary citizens in the long, hard, nonviolent struggle for democracy and self-determination.
The points in italics are discussed below.
The number one issue of our times is the global battle between democracy and authoritarianism. The world hangs in the balance: In the coming years and decades, it could easily become more authoritarian or more democratic. Other issues, such as climate change, must also be urgently addressed, but the question of whether the world goes in a more democratic or more authoritarian direction will have great bearing on that and all other urgent global issues.
As the most powerful dictatorship, China is the ringleader of a club of dictators who have a vested interest in ensuring the world goes in a more authoritarian direction. This club includes major countries like Russia, Turkey and Egypt.
Prominent democracies, such as the U.S., India and the Philippines, have leaders with authoritarian tendencies. Brazil and South Africa, major regional powers that have shown great democratic promise, have experienced democratic crises related to corruption. In large swaths of the Middle East and Central Asia, democracy is close to non-existent, and other areas such as Southeast Asia are not much better. Even the most democratic part of the world, Europe, has experienced challenges to democracy in a number of countries, most notably Hungary and Poland.
Giving the peace prize to Joshua, Nathan, Alex and the Umbrella Movement would be a recognition of the gravity of this issue and send a signal to people around the world of the importance of democracy. Hong Kong, being a “Special Administrative Region” in the world’s largest dictatorship, is on the front lines of the battle. Recent visits to Europe and the U.S. gave me the impression that Europeans and Americans don’t fully appreciate the threat that China poses to democracy worldwide. A Nobel Peace Prize to the Umbrella Movement would alert them to that.
Very few young people have won the Nobel Peace Prize. This is understandable: it often takes decades of work to bring about greater peace and justice. But it is important to recognize both the great contributions of young people to peace and their immense potential to bring about a more peaceful and more just world.
Young people were not the only ones who took part in the Umbrella Movement, but they certainly played a leading role. At a crucial moment in Hong Kong’s history, they stood up and said, I demand a say in my own society! What’s more, since then they’ve continued to do so, demonstrating admirable persistence, resilience, creativity, determination and courage. They are Hong Kong’s future. And while often little more than a well-worn platitude, it is nevertheless true that young people the world over are the future. In order to make the world a better, more peaceful place, it is necessary to tap their energy and ideals. Awarding the Peace Prize to Joshua, Nathan, Alex and the Umbrella Movement would be an inspiration to young people everywhere.
Nonviolent people’s movements
Malala Yousafzai is the only recent young Peace Prize laureate. She has admirably harnessed the notoriety gained from the near fatal attack on her to fight for education for girls worldwide. But Malala received the award as an individual, sharing the prize with Kailash Satyarthi.
The prize has most often gone to individuals, non-governmental organizations, politicians, and inter-governmental organizations (such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Atomic Energy Agency).
The Umbrella Movement came in the wake of the Arab Spring, which the Norwegian Nobel Committee has acknowledged, though with something of a sideways glance. The 2011 prize went to Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman, together with the Liberians Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”. In 2015, the National Dialogue Quartet won the prize “for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy in Tunisia in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011”. While both awards had to do with people’s movements for democracy, one focused more on women’s participation and the other on a group that, once the movement had succeeded in toppling the dictator, played a crucial role in bringing about a transition to democracy.
Giving the prize to the Umbrella Movement and its young leaders would be recognition of the importance of ordinary citizens working together to peacefully bring about more just and democratic societies.
The long, hard nonviolent struggle
The Umbrella Movement did not achieve its main positive objective. In this, it is similar to other recent movements like the Arab Spring, the Iranian Green Movement, the Occupy movement, and the worldwide demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
An estimated 1.2 million people participated in the 79-day-long occupations of three hubs of Hong Kong in late 2014. Before that, going back to 2003, hundreds of thousands had demonstrated down through the years for basic rights and universal suffrage. And since then, the struggle continues.
A Peace Prize to the Umbrella Movement would send the message that the peaceful struggle for rights is long and hard, there are no easy victories, but it is necessary to keep on fighting.
It took Gandhi and the anti-colonial movement of India decades. It took King and the Civil Rights Movement of the U.S. years, and that struggle for full equality is still unfinished. How long will it take us against the biggest dictatorship in the world? How long will it take all the others struggling against authoritarian regimes the world over?
It’s up to us, the people, to fight on, but a Peace Prize to the Umbrella Movement would be a beacon of hope to all engaged in the long, hard nonviolent struggle for freedom and the right to make decisions for ourselves and our own societies.
Will the Norwegian Nobel Committee give the Nobel Peace Prize to Joshua, Nathan, Alex and the Umbrella Movement?
This is, of course, impossible to know. There are almost certainly many other worthy nominees.
The conventional wisdom is that it’s a long shot. In reaction to Liu Xiaobo receiving the Peace Prize in 2010, the Chinese government punished all of Norway. For six years, there was virtually no contact between the Chinese and Norwegian governments. During that time, the Norwegian government was pressured by its business community to come to terms with China. When the two countries signed an agreement at the end of 2016 to “normalize relations”, many saw Norway as capitulating to China, and, in doing so, betraying its own values.
I was in Norway last summer before Liu Xiaobo’s death and spoke with many Norwegians about this. They felt somewhat uneasy about what their government had done but few criticized it. They thought it had made a pragmatic decision and got the best deal it could. It didn’t necessarily mean, they believed, that Norway would no longer stand up for rights abroad.
I took this general attitude to be the result of the years-long lobbying effort by the Norwegian business community, lead by its fish farmers. Norway believed it needed better relations with China for the sake of trade, in spite of the fact that it is an exceedingly wealthy country, due first and foremost to oil, and it has a well-managed sovereign wealth fund that guarantees its prosperity for generations to come. If any country was in a position to stand up to China, it was Norway. And yet it didn’t.
Then Liu Xiaobo died in custody. And the top leaders of the Norwegian government, the ones responsible for the deal with China, said not one word during the excruciating weeks the story of his dying played out in the international media. Even when backed into a corner by the press, Prime Minister Erna Solberg refused to utter Liu’s name, as if it were a magical incantation that would spell doom.
Harald Stanghelle, the editor-in-chief of Aftenposten (Norway’s New York Times), wrote an editorial reminding Norwegians of how Norway had stood up for Andrei Sakharov, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi and many more. In backing down to China, Norway was losing its identity as a small nation whose foreign policy was based on democracy and human rights.
Many Norwegians I spoke to agreed, not enough to make a dent in opinion polls (the conservative coalition government was narrowly re-elected in September 2017), but awareness was growing that being “pragmatic” came with moral and political costs that should perhaps be calculated more carefully. Who would bother to take the little country that traded freedom for fish seriously anymore?
In contrast to the silent government, Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, sent a heartfelt video message to the Liu Xiaobo memorial held in Hong Kong. She also attended the memorial service held in Washington, DC in October. It was clear Liu Xiaobo meant something to her.
Now the Umbrella Movement has been nominated. The threatening rumble from Beijing began the day after that was announced. While confining its criticism to the US lawmakers, China recited the same well-worn propaganda lines it used in the case of Liu Xiaobo, against “foreign interference” and about how the movement was “illegal” and “not peaceful” and the young men nominated were “criminals”. The Communist Party’s rhetoric wasn’t nearly as shrill as it might have been, but that’s because this is meant as only the initial warning salvo. The threats are bound to pick up closer to the time in early October when the winner will be announced.
Rarely has the Norwegian Nobel Committee faced such bullying tactics. Will it dare? If the people of Hong Kong can stand up to Beijing, the people of Norway, whom it costs much less, surely can too.
But does it really matter?
It would be a welcome acknowledgement, especially at a time when the pro-democracy movement is under sustained attack.
It wouldn’t immediately change anything, and there would in all likelihood be some backlash from the dictatorship. But the Peace Prize would reiterate that the Communist Party has a formidable opponent to contend with. Its demands for basic rights will not simply go away. It will not be destroyed.
It would be a reminder that the rest of the world is watching and give hope and inspiration to young people, persecuted people, and political movements fighting for democracy and other rights around the world.
Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo had zero effect. Since then, the regime’s doubled down on oppression. Even after his death, Xiaobo’s wife, Liu Xia, is still extrajudicially held incommunicado from the rest of the world. But that’s to be expected from a regime that controls all levers of power.
Hong Kong is different. It has a modicum of freedom and civil liberties. Due to censorship, many Chinese never even knew who Liu Xiaobo was and have only vaguely heard of the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations, if at all. Everyone in Hong Kong knows of the Umbrella Movement. It has determined almost every aspect of the political moment in which we now live.
Last Thursday evening, I was at the protest against the disqualification of Agnes Chow held outside the Hong Kong government’s briefing session for candidates in the upcoming Legislative Council by-elections to fill the seats of four of the six disqualified pro-democracy Legco members.
Agnes, Joshua and Nathan had managed to get inside the session, which was closed to the public, as assistants to Agnes’ replacement, Au Nok-hin. I was standing near the back door when suddenly it flew open and before my eyes Agnes was unceremoniously tossed out by a clutch of security guards. At the same moment, Joshua and Nathan were similarly ejected via the front door. It suddenly hit me that the dictators in Beijing are terrified of these brave, articulate, and passionate young people.
A memory followed in the train of that epiphany: In 1989, I was teaching at a university in China when, just four months after the June 4 massacre, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the Dalai Lama. Some of the students at the university had been killed on June 4, others had been imprisoned, still others were on the run, wanted by the authorities. The school year opened with compulsory military training and political education for all students. They were deeply depressed and refused to work. This was back in the days when universities still assigned graduates jobs at work units, and almost all of the students were being punished for their participation in the demonstrations by being sent to the least desirable work units in rural areas.
When the news broke that the Dalai Lama had been awarded the prize, the students were shocked and disappointed. They’d had years of brainwashing by the Communist Party that he was an evil separatist: why would the Norwegian Nobel Committee give the Peace Prize to such a person?
I tried to explain to them as best I could who the Dalai Lama really was and why he deserved the prize, but deep down, I was disappointed too. Even while I recognized that the Dalai Lama would have been an excellent choice in any other year, the students had been hoping that their pro-democracy demonstrations would be awarded the prize, and who could blame them? They had tried to peacefully change China for the better and had been killed, imprisoned and punished in myriad other ways for doing so.
Not long after that, Western democracies mostly resumed “normal relations” with the regime under cover of the cynical euphemism of “engagement”, whereby the prerogatives of capital and trade were prioritized over freedom, democracy, freedom and human rights.
It’s hard not to feel, looking back, that the Norwegian Nobel Committee missed an opportunity. If the prize had been awarded to the young Chinese who’d stood up for their country, it might have set a somewhat different tone on the world stage and affected the dynamics of what was to come.
Since then, China has failed to democratize. The regime has hardly changed at all. The Committee tried to make amends with the award to Liu Xiaobo, but it was arguably too late: The movement of which he’d been a part had been obliterated decades before, he was in prison, and the Party was already in the process of destroying the fragile beginnings of the independent civil society for which he stood.
Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Joshua, Nathan, Alex and the Umbrella Movement would be exceedingly timely, recognizing a movement that is still very much alive and still has a chance of changing Hong Kong for the better, and perhaps even positively affecting the rest of China. Beyond that, it would be a beacon of hope to people everywhere who yearn for freedom, democracy and human rights.