On Tuesday, just days before the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, Beijing embarrassed itself in front of an international audience. “I would like to say to those at the Nobel Committee, they are orchestrating an anti-China farce by themselves,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu. “We are not changing because of interference by a few clowns and we will not change our path.”

“Clowns”? Why would Chinese diplomats, once praised for deftness and charm, revert to the language of the Cultural Revolution?

In October, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its prize to Liu Xiaobo. Mr. Liu, a longtime dissident, was the primary force behind Charter 08, issued on the sixtieth anniversary of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The manifesto, modeled on Vaclav Havel’s Charter 77, calls for a “free, democratic and constitutional nation.”

China’s constitution says the nation is both free and democratic, but Charter 08 proved too much for the Communist Party. Mr. Liu was sentenced to an 11-year term for subverting state power, his wife put under house arrest.

In recent days, various high-profile Chinese citizens, such as artist Ai Weiwei and the economist Mao Yushi, have found themselves barred from leaving the country, presumably to keep them well away from Friday’s ceremony in Oslo. Of the 140 individuals invited by Liu’s wife to attend the Nobel event, only one of them—Wan Yanhai, now in the United States—will be able to attend. The rest remain in China, either under house arrest or constant surveillance.

The remarks of the Foreign Ministry elicited derisive laughter, but the vituperative language reveals something. The intemperate words show how much foreign approval—in other words, the aura of legitimacy—counts to Party bosses.

How much? According to the Nobel Committee, China has applied “unprecedented” pressure on countries not to send representatives to the ceremony in Oslo on Friday. The Chinese government now claims success for its boycott. “As far as I know, at present, more than 100 countries and organizations have expressed explicit support for China opposing the Nobel Peace Prize, which fully shows that the international community does not accept the decision of the Nobel Committee,” the Foreign Ministry’s Ms. Jiang noted on Tuesday.

That’s a curious statement because the Nobel Committee sent out only 65 invitations, one to every nation maintaining an embassy in the Norwegian capital. Of those, 18 countries have said they will join China in the boycott on Friday.

And if Beijing had not done enough to highlight its atrocious—and worsening—human rights record, it will award its first Confucius Peace Prize on Thursday. The winner is Lien Chan, a semi-successful Taiwan politician, who prevailed over nominees Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Gates. The head of the awards committee was quoted as saying that “we hope people will believe the award is of global significance.”

The global significance of the new prize is that the conflict between the Communist Party and the Chinese people is spilling over China’s borders and playing out in the international arena. And as this happens, the Chinese government shows us just how insecure its leaders are. Although Beijing may look mighty from the outside—it owns this century, in case you haven’t heard—its rulers apparently think the country teeters on the verge of chaos if not collapse.

Chinese society is, in fact, extraordinarily volatile. As the Chinese people surge forward, their government moves in the opposite direction. The result has been growing social unrest. There may have been as many as 230,000 protests last year in China, up from the 80,000 to 90,000 in the middle of this decade. The stark reality is that as China becomes more prosperous, it becomes less stable.

Maybe that’s why Beijing’s diplomats are throwing public tantrums and engaging in vehement name-calling. In any event, you’ve got to wonder about a country whose number one foreign policy goal at the moment is to prevent attendance at a ceremony just south of the Arctic Circle.

Gordon G. Chang is a Forbes.com columnist and the author of The Coming Collapse of China. Follow him on Twitter @GordonGChang (http://twitter.com/GordonGChang)

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