BEIJING — China has long wanted a Nobel prize. Now that it has one, its leaders are furious.
The Nobel committee awarded its peace prize to imprisoned democracy campaigner Liu Xiaobo on Friday, lending encouragement to China's dissident community and sending a rebuke to the authoritarian government, which sharply condemned the award.
In naming Liu, the Norwegian-based committee honored his more than two decades of advocacy for human rights and peaceful democratic change — from the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 to a manifesto for political reform that he co-authored in 2008 and which led to his latest jail term.
President Barack Obama, last year's peace prize winner, called for Liu's immediate release.
Anticipating the award, Chinese circumvented Internet controls and called friends overseas to learn the news. Supporters and friends gathered outside Liu's central Beijing apartment, where his wife was kept inside by police. At a park, a civil rights lawyer, a retired official-turned-blogger and a dozen other people cheered and waved placards saying "Long Live Freedom of Speech." The demonstrators were later taken away by police.
A buzz of congratulations coursed through Chinese instant messaging sites before censors scrubbed postings and blocked cell phone text messages that contained the characters for Liu's name. Exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who won the prize in 1989, joined Obama and other leaders in congratulating Liu.
"Last year, I noted that so many others who have received the award had sacrificed so much more than I," Obama said. "That list now includes Mr. Liu, who has sacrificed his freedom for his beliefs."
The president praised China for its stunning 30 years of transformative economic growth. "But this award reminds us that political reform has not kept pace, and that the basic human rights of every man, woman and child must be respected," Obama said.
Two years into an 11-year jail term for subversion at a prison 300 miles from Beijing, the slight, 54-year-old literary critic was unlikely to have found out about the award. Prisoners are restricted to state media, which mostly ignored the news. His overjoyed wife, Liu Xia, said she hoped to give him a hug and tell him if police allow her to travel to the prison today.
The contretemps points to the sticky predicament the prize poses for the communist leadership. Liu is the first Chinese and first member of the much persecuted group of political activists to be given the peace prize, but he is virtually unknown among ordinary Chinese. The award is likely to carry his name and his call for democracy to a wider audience, especially among young Chinese who are avid Internet and cell phone users but due to censorship know little of the rights camp's past struggles with the government.
"They are going to want to know who Liu Xiaobo is and why he won this prize. They are going to learn who he is and this way they are going to learn more about freedom, democracy, justice and about the Tiananmen generation," said Ai Weiwei, a prominent artist who has become a fierce champion of human rights.
"It also sends a message to China and the Chinese government, that while the international community recognizes the economic achievements of today's China, it still cannot forget that China is falling behind in terms of some basic values and human principles, such as human rights and freedom of speech."
A Nobel for a Chinese dissident is one prize not wanted by a government usually hungry for international approval. It has launched a deep-pocketed campaign to win science prizes. And the peace prize lands squarely in the middle of a brewing debate among the Chinese leadership and the elite over whether to begin political reforms, and if so, how quickly.
In recent weeks the premier has called for changing the political system to safeguard China's stunning economic achievements while the powerful Politburo member overseeing law enforcement has urged officials to resist "erroneous Western political and legal perspectives."
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