Imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize Friday, a move that highlighted the plight of those who speak out against China's authoritarian government and the lengths to which it goes to silence them.
The Nobel committee said that by awarding the prize to Liu, who's currently serving an 11-year sentence on subversion charges, it intended to call attention to human rights problems and political repression in China.
"China's new status must entail increased responsibility," the committee said in Oslo. "China is in breach of several international agreements to which it is a signatory, as well as of its own provisions concerning political rights."
The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded by denouncing the recognition of Liu, a 54-year-old former literature professor as a "blasphemy against the peace prize."
"Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who has been sentenced by Chinese judicial departments for violating Chinese law," said the statement, attributed to Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu.
The award was widely welcomed abroad, however. President Barack Obama called on China "to release Mr. Liu as soon as possible."
Reached by phone Friday, Liu's wife, Liu Xia, said she had one hope about the prize: "It means my husband will come home earlier."
As for Liu Xiaobo himself, she said, "it means over 20 years of persistence have been recognized . . . other dissidents' work will be recognized too. They will be encouraged by this."
The award is a powerful test for officials in Beijing, who usually clamp down hard on any sign of dissent. In the months leading up to the award, at least one Chinese official tried to pressure the Nobel committee into dropping Liu as a candidate, according to an official of the Nobel committee.
Any move to punish Liu or other activists further following the award of the peace prize could bring rebuke from across the globe.
"They've worked very hard to marginalize dissident voices and keep them outside of the mainstream," said Larry Siems, international programs director in New York for PEN, a writers' advocacy group whose president nominated Liu for the award. "But there's nothing more mainstream than the Nobel Peace prize."
The first mention of the award on the state Xinhua news service was a one sentence warning by the foreign ministry that the award could harm relations between China and Norway.
Chinese authorities scrubbed online commentary about Liu on Chinese websites and blocked transmission by foreign TV outlets such as CNN and BBC when the award was announced.
There were conflicting reports about Liu Xia's movements later in the evening. Reuters reported that Chinese security officers planned to escort Liu's wife to visit Liu Xiaobo in prison in the northeastern province of Liaoning, partly to keep her away from the media. Dozens of Western reporters earlier had waited outside her apartment for interviews, but police didn't allow them to enter.
Chinese security took Liu Xiaobo into custody in December 2008, shortly before the public release of a political manifesto he helped draft. The document, known as Charter 08, called for a list of changes in China including open elections, an independent judiciary and human rights guarantees. It was modeled on Charter 77, a Czech pro-democracy essay during Soviet rule that formed the foundation for the later Velvet Revolution.
Last December, Liu was sentenced to 11 years in prison for attempting to subvert the state.
Liu is the first resident Chinese citizen to receive the Nobel — exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama won it in 1989 — but it wasn't clear when or if he'd hear that he'd been selected. His wife said that as of early evening, Liu Xiaobo hadn't been notified in his prison cell.
After hearing that Liu had won, Chinese observers and activists hailed the award as a potential landmark event in a country where dissidents are harassed and their words blocked.
"It's a huge boost to those who are basically isolated," said Bao Pu, who leads a publishing house in Hong Kong that's printed political works that are banned in the mainland. "The government of China had done everything in the past to deny their voices."
Chinese artist and political provocateur Ai Weiwei said the decision reaffirmed to activists in China that "the international community still cares about human rights."
"Today is certainly a shameful day for any government that puts people, because they have different ideas, behind bars for 11 years without any discussion," said Ai, an outspoken government critic.
During interviews earlier in the week, Liu's wife said that both she and her husband had accepted the consequences of his activism.
"Because we have chosen this way, we don't complain," Liu Xia said in a phone interview with McClatchy. "There is one sentence that Xiaobo likes: 'Anything can be handed in except freedom.'"
Hasn't her husband lost his freedom in prison, though?
Liu Xia said that she meant something else: "Real freedom."
Liu Xiaobo had already spent almost two years in jail for his support of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest that ended with tanks rolling in and government troops firing into the crowds. One of his actions at the protest, however, was to negotiate peaceful passage for some protesters. Later, he served three years in a labor camp during the mid-1990s for continuing to criticize the government.
Liu's attorney, Shang Baojun, told CNN Friday that the award could extend his prison time.
"I hope that he'd be released earlier because of the prize, but in reality, that will not happen," Shang told CNN. Amnesty International urged China to set Liu free.
"This award can only make a real difference if it prompts more international pressure on China to release Liu, along with the numerous other prisoners of conscience languishing in Chinese jails for exercising their right to freedom of expression," said Catherine Baber, the deputy Asia-Pacific director at Amnesty International, in the release.
The document that got Liu into trouble, Charter 08, was signed by thousands of people online, though its public dissemination was sharply restricted by the Chinese government. In fact, thanks to official censorship, most of Liu's efforts were unknown to the majority of Chinese — a fact that the Nobel Prize might change.
Beijing apparently had campaigned hard to keep Liu's name out of the headlines. The Norwegian Nobel Institute's director, Geir Lundestad, told Norwegian news agency NTB that Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying had warned him in June that China strongly opposed Liu's nomination.
Giving Liu the Nobel Peace Prize, Lundetsad quoted Fu as saying, "would be seen as an unfriendly act."
Some have speculated that the pressure may have pushed the Nobel committee to do what China didn't want it to do.
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