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Big PR goof? China's confusing Confucius prize

BEIJING – In a corner of a cramped conference room that played host to the awarding of the First Confucius Peace Prize, two small children milled around in a corner playing a game with a small crystal trophy that ended up being the actual Confucius prize itself.

Had the two looked up, they probably would have far more enjoyed the game being played out around them.

In what will probably go down as one of the worst PR disasters for China in some time, the assembled jurors for the Confucius Peace Prize – some of whom had only been selected a few days before – awarded the prize to former Taiwanese vice-president Lien Chan, who through his spokesman claimed he had never heard of the prize and had no intention of ever picking up the award

Lien perhaps feared the skewering that popular Taiwanese animated news company, Next Media, gave him just yesterday:


The jury, receiving the award in Lien’s absence noted, ““We are here to collect the prize on behalf of Grandpa Lien Chan!” to a smattering of applause from staffers inside.

The assembled media, already skeptical of a prize announced only 3 weeks before and conveniently awarded the day before the Nobel Peace Prize, had many of their suspicions confirmed by the official “Confucius Peace Prize Jury Announcement,” which seemed rushed and virulent in its opinion of the Nobel Prize and its Norwegian origins:     

China is a symbol of peace, meanwhile it owns the absolute power to uphold peace. With over 1 billion people, it should have a greater voice on the issue of world peace. In essence, Norway is only a small country with scarce land area and population, but it must be in the minority in terms of other relatively large numbers concerning the conception of freedom and democracy. Hence, the selection of the “Nobel Peace Prize” should open [sic] to the people in the world instead of engaging in “minority” type of the [sic] so-called presumption. Because it is unable to stand on the highest point of the whole human being, but also difficult to represent the viewpoint of most people, which could be inevitably biased and fallacious.

As the jurors stressed, China had reconstructed the “Peace Prize” with Chinese characteristics. However, according to them, none of this had anything to do with jailed dissident, Liu Xiaobo.

In fact, the jurors initially were reluctant to even say Liu’s name aloud, preferring euphemisms that referred to the Chinese characters that composed his name.

In responding to one question regarding Liu, a juror cautiously said, “Everything and every detail we do at the Confucius Peace Prize, has nothing to do with the Three Characters [Liu Xiaobo] you just mentioned.”

The amusing names brought levity to some otherwise serious questions posed to the jurors regarding the detention of Liu Xiaobo, the timeline surrounding the creation of the Confucius Prize, the origins of the 100,000 yuan ($15,000) prize and the co-opting of an important Chinese philosopher in the name of political gamesmanship with the West.

As the press conference went on, hard feelings amongst the jurors regarding the criteria for the Nobel Peace Prize and its past winners started to seep out.

In particular, jurors were keen to discuss China’s peaceful history and rise as compared to the West. Even providing a history lesson as one noted that acclaimed 16th century Chinese admiral and eunuch, Zheng He, “sailed much of the world and never colonized anyone.”

President Barack Obama’s win last year was also mentioned as an example of the hypocrisy of the prize as jurors expressed outrage that someone who presided over two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could be nominated to win a peace prize.

Whether there is another Confucius Peace Prize next year will certainly be a topic of intense discussion in the coming months. To be sure, a ceremony next year will almost certainly be cleaned up and this rare, it's unlikely this uncensored commentary on Sino-western relations will ever be repeated again.

However, that isn’t to say that the sentiments expressed today won’t be felt down the line. As one juror confidently noted toward the end, “In 500 years, history will be on our side!”