Within hours of the announcement of a Nobel Peace Prize for Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese government reacted as if reading from a script. As expected—and as was appropriate, given that Liu is an advocate of the free press—it erased news of the prize from Chinese Web sites, removed Liu's name from Twitter, and jammed a CNN broadcast from Oslo. It also issued a fairly standard string of denunciations. A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry described Liu as a "convicted criminal sentenced to jail by Chinese justice authorities for violation of Chinese law." By giving him the prize, the committee had "totally gone against the purpose of the award" and "committed blasphemy against the peace prize."
He didn't finish there. "Recently, China and Norway have had good relations," he declared ominously. No longer.
To which there is only one possible reaction: Who cares about Chinese-Norwegian relations? Certainly not the Norwegians, whose enviably high living standards derive from their small numbers and their offshore gas supplies, not from their trade with China. It's true the Norwegian government is currently negotiating a free-trade agreement with China, but it isn't of earth-shattering significance: All told, Norway's trade with China (2 percent of exports, 7 percent of imports) is a small fraction of its trade with the European Union, and the balance is entirely in China's favor.
And that, of course, is precisely the point. When he created this prize, Alfred Nobel, the Swedish dynamite millionaire, decreed that the selection committee should consist solely of five Norwegians. His reasoning: Norway is outside the European mainstream, and Norwegians are therefore less likely to be corrupt. As I pointed out last year—when the Nobel peace prize inexplicably went to the just-elected President Obama—Norwegians, being outside the European mainstream, are also more likely to be eccentric. In this case, their eccentricity is demonstrated by the fact that they genuinely could not care less about the reaction of the Chinese government.
In the modern world, there aren't that many nations in a position to be so cavalier. The British and the French did cautiously applaud the prize. Both of their foreign ministry spokesmen declared right away that they had called for Liu's release in the past. But the European Union was more careful: Its commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, made a general statement in support of "all those around the world who, sometimes with great personal sacrifice, are struggling for freedom and human rights."
The White House, meanwhile, was worryingly silent: Despite the fact that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also called for Liu's release at a democracy conference last summer, the State Department did not issue an immediate statement of congratulation following the announcement, even though it managed one marking the 40th anniversary of the independence of Fiji.
More to the point, the entire morning went by before last year's winner congratulated his successor. As of noon, Eastern time, not a word had been said: Presumably, everybody was sweating over the wording of a statement. Finally one appeared. It was straightforward enough: The president described Liu as "an eloquent and courageous spokesmen for the advance of universal values," called on the Chinese government to release Liu "as soon as possible," and made a nod to the "dramatic progress in economic reform in China" just in case there were any hurt feelings.
He declined to elaborate further a few minutes later when he met with media in the Rose Garden to say an official farewell to Jim Jones. But then, we are not Norway.