China, the Nobel Peace Prize, and the Ancient Greeks

News Abroad

J.E. Lendon is Professor of History, the University of Virginia, and author of Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins (Basic Books, 2010).

Just when you think the performance is over, the orchestra starts up again: there seems to be no end to the ugly symphony of Chinese scorn for the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo. Even before the announcement, Norway was subjected to diplomatic menaces in the hope of discouraging the Nobel committee from awarding the prize. After the announcement came the demand, wreathed in obscure threats, that the nations of the world not send their diplomats to the award ceremony; and now the Chinese threaten that nations who officially acknowledge the honor will “bear the consequences.”

Why is China behaving in this way? The Nobel Prize is a Western attack on China, the official People’s Daily explains, because Western states “fear the rise of China.” This makes no sense if China’s rise is regarded as purely economic. But their wealth is not the increase the Chinese feel is threatened: it is their status, their prestige. The ancient Greeks would have understood China’s reaction far better than we do.

Modern Western powers tend to regard the international community as made up of states that are in principle equal, even if they differ sharply in power and wealth. The ancient Greeks, the Chinese, and, in fact, many contemporary international actors view the international community instead as consisting of a vertical ranking of states, in which higher rank merits a special degree of respect from the lower ranks. National rank has a powerful emotional element to it. Often the easiest way to detect a state that values national rank is the emotional language it uses: the language of anger or pain or revenge. Such emotion can be counterfeited, but it is not just rhetoric: for such emotions are in fact felt, individually and in mass, by the people of rank-minded states (whether or not they have confidence in the government that professes to be expressing their fury). They feel real pride in the rank of their nations, and anger and pain when their nations are insulted. Angry they may be, but not irrational: rank makes states act in certain predictable ways, because the currency of rank is not money or power, but the public respect a state is paid by other states, minus the insults it suffers from them.

This is how the Nobel Prize can be understood as a weapon directed against China. It is an insult: an insult both because it lowers the international esteem in which China is held and because it implies that China is not worthy of the rising rank of which it is so proud.

A story from ancient Greece echoes that of contemporary China: the coming of the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) between Athens and Sparta, when Sparta went to war to defend her long-time superiority in rank, and a rising Athens fought to compel Sparta to admit her equality. These ancient Greek adventures remind us that states that feel that they are rising in rank (like Athens once and China now) are intensely sensitive to perceived insult, because they need their pretensions to rank confirmed by others. Those ancient events remind us also that the natural diplomatic reaction to insult is to insult in exchange (for revenge restores the rank lost by being insulted, and even verbal revenge eases the pain). “Drive out a curse!” demanded the Spartans of the Athenians. “No, you drive out two curses!” thundered back the Athenians. That is why the Chinese are shouting at the West. Next come attempts to coerce acts of deference from the insulting party, to make him publicly back down: that also restores the endangered rank of the insulted. After the exchange of insults, the Spartans presented a laundry list of demands to the Athenians, but the details did not matter: what mattered was forcing the opponent to yield. So similarly the Chinese, threatening that the diplomats of Europe must boycott the awards ceremony in Oslo or “bear the consequences.” In ancient Greece, when the Athenians refused to back down, diplomatic relations ceased, and war followed in due course. It is hardly to be expected that China will go to war with Norway over the Nobel Prize bestowed on Liu Xiaobo--although, historically, rank-minded states have sometimes gone to war for far less serious insults. But even if their high kicks are sometimes limited by circumstances, states that think about international relations in terms of rank—as many have through history, and as many now do—appear to dance to very similar jigs.

very similar jigs.      

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Philip Hou - 11/22/2010

I fully agree by whatever Mr Du Pa has said. In the eighties the americans wanted to have a foothole in China so that they could exploit. They never want China to develop and compete with them, the same way they never want Africa to develop.

Seeing China rise they are so jealous that they will always make China a scapegoat for any problem they face.

I never imagined that America and some western countries could be so mean.

Fahrettin Tahir - 11/22/2010

The Scandinavian social democrats decide who gets Nobel peace and literature prizes.

It is their way of telling the rest of mankind that Scandinavians are better people than the rest of us.

du pa - 11/21/2010

There can be no doubt that the past 30 years since Deng’s reforms began have been the best 30 years that the Chinese have experienced since the Opium War of 1842. One reason for this is that the Chinese government managed to find the right balance between opening up society and maintaining order—and that in a country of 1.3 billion people.

The Nobel award to Liu could upset the delicate political balance in China by stirring up a “colour revolution,” reintroducing chaos to China.

China will become a democracy, with its world’s largest middle class. However, it is likely to get there faster if the present balance of rapid economic transformation and gradual political transformation is maintained. Few Chinese believe that the West is trying to do China any good by trying to accelerate the political transformation and many have the conviction that the goal of this prize is to destabilise China by purpose since West is so frustrated and jealous with China's rise while feeling helpless in its stradegy.

du pa - 11/21/2010

Liu Xiaobo was once asked by Asia Time about how China should progress and he replied:

--- “It would take 300 years of colonialism. In 100 years of colonialism, Hong Kong has changed to what we see today. With China being so big, of course it would take 300 years of colonialism for it to be able to transform into how Hong Kong is today. I have my doubts as to whether 300 years would be enough.”

That’s the very reason he was granted the honor.

Nobel should be a prize for REWARD not as a tool to INFLUENCE and INSULT. It has degenerated to a farce and is still degenerating. Like Jagland the Nobel chairman said that "China, as big powers now, should be under criticism''. Why not, I guess they could grant Nobel to war criminal Herry Kissinger as a way to criticise America too.

iu Xiaobo will unfortunately serve as a symbol and tool of Western insult to China because over 87% Chinese support their government.

According to American PEW Poll report of 2010:“China is clearly the most self-satisfied country in the 2010 Pew survey. Nearly nine-in-ten Chinese are happy with the direction of their country (87%), feel good about the current state of their economy (91%) and are optimistic about China’s economic future (87%). 64% of Chinese have a very favorable view of their own country, a self regard that exceeds Americans (48%), Russians (43%), Germans (12%) and Brazilians (31%)”.

As America doesnt want to be Number Two while it cannot stop China from rising, the only weapon left for its choice is the funny DemonCrazy or a Colour Revolution which will at least slow China down. Nobel Commitee, consists of 4 former officials pointed by Norway government, is of course seving in this way just a foot-soldier for the American geopolitical agenda, nothing more.