I realize I was just patting China on the back a few days ago for clever public diplomacy, but I think they've botched it up this time. Clearly, China's response to the receipt, by Liu Xiaobo, of the first Nobel Peace Prize to be won by a Chinese national has exposed an underlying conflict within the country.
On the one hand, the award is an honor. But Liu Xiaobo is a poster child for human rights and pro-democracy dissent in China, and the award draws negative attention to human rights abuses in China. The government's initial response was to repress the news, with a major media and Internet censorship campaign, which merely served to highlight the nation's lack of free speech. Underlying this entire response is a disconnect between China's belief in national sovereignty and its desire to gain prestige within the international system by adhering to international norms (such as those laid out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which China is a signatory).
China has shown itself to be adept at resisting international pressure in the past. As China is a non-democratic government, its leaders are not subjected to electoral accountability. Dissidents are prevented from voicing their views. And the nation's geopolitical and economic significance make it immune to some of the external pressures that might influence less influential countries. Despite China's adherence to communist politics, the nation is economically tied to many capitalist countries and corporations, and has a thriving economy. Its economic strength hinders trade partners from applying much pressure to the country, as was the case when the Clinton administration attempted to link trade and human rights conditions.
It's long been acknowledged that China's human rights track record doesn't exactly mesh with the UDHR philosophy, and this new prize is the latest situation to bring that problem into the harsh glare of an international spotlight. China has resisted international pressure in the past, but schisms between words and action can impede public diplomacy and soft power in general by undermining a nation's credibility. It's unlikely that the Peace Prize will create a radical shift in China's domestic human rights policy--but the government's response thus far hasn't done it any favors. Even a small shift, for example, not suppressing media reports of the prize, would go a long way towards improving China's human rights image.