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."
Chinese Foreign Ministry officials in Beijing and Oslo lodged protests. The agency's spokesman issued a stinging condemnation, branding Liu a criminal, warning Norway that relations would suffer and accusing the Nobel committee of undermining the prize's mission to promote international understanding.
"Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who has been sentenced by Chinese judicial departments for violating Chinese law," spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in the statement. "The Nobel committee's decision to award such a person the peace prize runs completely counter to the principle of the prize and also desecrates the prize."
Jonas Gahr Stoere, foreign minister of wealthy, oil-rich Norway, said any punishment would backfire. "I think that would be negative for China's reputation in the world, if they chose to do that," Stoere told National Broadcaster NRK.
In announcing the prize in the Norwegian capital Oslo, the Nobel committee issued a challenge to China to live up to responsibilities as the world's second-largest economy and a burgeoning diplomatic and military power.
"China cannot only demand to have political and economic power, without being exposed to the same kind of discussions as other superpowers have been," committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said. He called Liu the "foremost symbol of Chinese human rights activists," adding: "So it was natural to give the prize only to him as a symbol of the whole Chinese society's wish for more democracy."
Liu is the first peace prize winner chosen while still in prison, although several laureates, including Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (1991) and German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky (1935) were in custody. Still others, like Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov (1975) and Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa (1983), were prevented by their governments from going to Norway to accept the prize.
Liu's wife, prevented by police from mixing with the nearly 100 Chinese and foreign reporters outside her apartment, said by phone and messages that the award would give Liu encouragement. She hoped to go to Norway to collect the medal and its prize money of 10 million Swedish kronor (about $1.5 million), if he cannot.
"I think this prize doesn't only belong to Liu Xiaobo one person, but also for all the people in China who advocate democracy, freedom and peace and for all the prisoners of conscience in jail," Liu Xia told Hong Kong's Cable TV.
In a statement issued by the Washington-based group Freedom Now, she thanked former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel, the Dalai Lama and South African Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, also a Nobel laureate, for nominating her husband.
Havel, who never won the prize but whose own human rights petition Charter 77 inspired Liu's tract Charter 08 and helped bring about the end of communist rule in then Czechoslovakia, said Liu "is exactly the kind of a committed citizen who deserves such an award."
Liu's Charter 08 called for greater freedoms and for the Communist Party to give way to gradual, democratic change. "The democratization of Chinese politics can be put off no longer," Charter 08 says.
The government arrested Liu hours before the document's release in December 2008. It was the most programmatic in the hundreds of essays Liu wrote. Jailed for two years after the Tiananmen protests — when he helped persuade student protesters to leave the square before a military assault — and again for three years in the 1990s, Liu found a computer and the Internet at home on his release in 1999. "God's present to China," he called the Internet.
Thousands of Chinese — civil rights campaigners, professors and young professionals — signed on to Charter 08, which circulated by e-mail and on overseas Internet sites after being expunged from web pages in China.
The ability of Chinese to surmount censorship barriers using proxy servers and coded language kicked into high gear in the hours just before the Nobel announcement.
Excitement pulsed among students at Beijing Normal University, where Liu earned a degree in the '80s, and at Peking University. They passed word via the popular QQ.com instant messaging site.
When messages with Liu's name became blocked and online searches for him or "Nobel Peace Prize" failed — a usual tactic of censors — people began posting oblique congratulations to an unnamed Chinese for winning a Nobel.
Some curious students also said they did not know why Liu won and, echoing an oft-stated government line, wondered whether it was not a backhanded plot to shame China.
"The impact he has made is not Nobel Prize-level so far," said a Peking University English major, who would only give his English name, Eric Zhang. "People abroad know him better than we do. This is not us choosing him. They chose him, so I'm a bit suspicious. But maybe this is an opportunity to get more freedom so we don't have to go to Twitter to find out about him."
The government blacked out reports on CNN, which can be seen in tourist hotels and places where foreigners work and live, and kept the news off the main nationwide TV newscast. China Central Television-4, which is aimed at Chinese overseas, read the Foreign Ministry statement, providing a back door for Chinese to learn about Liu.
comments on this story
"Millions and millions of ordinary Chinese people, government employees, party cadres, students ... are going to want to know who is Liu Xiaobo and why he was sentenced to prison," said Nicholas Bequelin, Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. "They are going to discover Charter 08, which will spread uncontrollably."
The decision to jail Liu, he said, "has backfired spectacularly, and at a very critical juncture when China is coming out in the international community. Was jailing Liu worth the price of the current predicament?"