Thoughts on Kingdom, Church, and Grace from an American living in Hong Kong

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Nobel Peace Prize puts China "On Tilt"

In the 1998 film Rounders Matt Damon narrates the subtleties of No Limit Texas Hold-up poker:

A brilliant player can get a strong hand cracked, go on tilt...
and lose his mind along with every single chip in front of him.

In poker parlance to "go on tilt" means to so frustrate a player to point where they are not playing rationally. The other players enjoy a great advantage because the flummoxed player keeps throwing good money after bad rather than mentally acknowledging they lost a big hand, cool down, and play the next hand fresh. A guy going "on tilt" can be fun to watch...provided you're not the guy.

That Matt Damon Rounders line has been ringing in my ears as I've watched the proceedings surrounding the Nobel Peace Prize award given to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo this week. The Nobel Committee's naming of Liu for the prestigious award has managed to put the Middle Kingdom into full on "tilt" mode.

China's normally restrained and carefully calculated "soft" diplomacy was thrown out the window in favor of earlier, and more proven, ways of dealing with dissent. Both Norway, and countries that sent representatives to the ceremony were threatened with future punitive actions, Chinese nationals were not allowed to travel to Oslo for the occasion, and Chinese dignitaries labeled the award to Liu "obscene" and a "political farce". In China words like "Liu" and "Nobel Peace" were censored preventing texts and Internet searches from yielding results and news broadcasting the award ceremony were blacked out.

Ironically, if China had simply ignored or down played the award, most people, both inside and outside of China, would have remained ignorant of Liu Xiaobo's existence.

So why has China lashed out so vocally and let itself "go on tilt"?

Part of the reason can be explained in that China is a "face" driven society. Most westerners see "face" as the need to give someone respect but having lived over here for many years I'm beginning to see it as a much deeper trait. It really is part of the soul of the country. The Nobel Prize, although publicly ridiculed now by Chinese leaders, is really held in high regard for the prestige it confers. And in China, prestige is paramount. The country has been trying for years to get some of its "approved" writers awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to no avail. Thus the awarding of the Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo, whom the government has labeled a criminal, stung pretty bad.

China has in turn accused the whole event of being politically motivated. And you know what?

...they're probably right.

The Nobel Committee is far from being a neutral and unbiased body. Did they intend to provoke China? Of course they did and you know why?

Because they could.

Being a "face" based society makes China more susceptible to "going on tilt" as it feels compelled to respond to diplomatic slights that most Western nations can simply ignore. Hence, anytime a Western nation wants to "tilt" China, they mearly need to increase ties with Taiwan,  have the Dali Lama 'round for a Bar-B-Q, or you know, give the Nobel Peace prize to a dissident. There is no reciprocal action that China can have on the West that can provoke it. The West is not "face" based and can fall back on a yawn.

China is sitting at the big boys diplomatic poker table now but its at a distinct disadvantage. It's sincere desire to be respected in the world's eyes exposes it to pressure points that can be poked at by the other players ad infinitum.

Matt Damon goes on to say in Rounders:

Some people, pros even, won't play No-Limit.
They can't handle the swings.
China is seated at the "no-Limit" table;  it better learn to handle the swings fast because a China "on tilt" won't be fun for anyone.


Paul Ellis said...

Texas Hold-Up? Is that the version they play with six-shooters?

Great post Steve! You nailed China's Achilles Heel. In trying to save face they lose face. And down goes the Hang Seng Index.

Steve H. said...

Thanks foreign affairs posts never seem to solicit a lot of comments though. Thanks for the feedback!