Imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, a move that dramatically highlighted both the plight of those who speak out against the authoritarian government in Beijing and the lengths to which it goes to silence them.
The Nobel committee made clear in its announcement of the award that by giving it to Liu, currently serving an 11-year sentence on subversion charges, it intended to highlight human rights problems and political repression in China.
“China’s new status must entail increased responsibility,” said the statement from 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 releasing a statement calling the recognition of Liu, a 54-year-old former professor, a “blasphemy against the peace prize.”
“Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who has been sentenced by Chinese judicial departments for violating Chinese law,” the statement said.
The first mention of the development on state media, the Xinhua news service, was just one sentence long and conveyed the foreign ministry’s warning that the award could harm relations between China and Norway.
Online commentary about Liu on Chinese websites were scrubbed away and transmission of foreign TV outlets such as CNN and BBC were temporarily blocked during portions that featured the award.
Reached by phone on 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.”
Chinese security took Liu into custody in December 2008 shortly before the public release of a political manifesto he helped draft was to be published. The document, known as Charter 08, called for a list of reforms 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 prison time for attempting to subvert the state.
As the first resident Chinese citizen to receive the Nobel –exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama won it in 1989 — it wasn’t clear when or if Liu would 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 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 critic of the Chinese government.
During interviews earlier in the week, Liu’s wife said 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.”
But hasn’t her husband lost his freedom in prison?
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, and later served some three years in a labor camp during the mid-1990s for continuing to criticize the government.
Liu’s attorney, Shang Baojun, told CNN on Friday that the award could actually mean that his prison time is lengthened.
“I hope that he’d be released earlier because of the prize, but in reality, that will not happen,” Shang told CNN.
Amnesty International released a statement calling for 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,” Catherine Baber, Deputy Asia-Pacific Director at Amnesty International, said 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 limited by the Chinese government. In fact, owing to official censorship, most of Liu’s efforts were unknown to the majority of Chinese people – a fact that the award might change.
Beijing had apparently been campaigning 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 was strongly opposed to Liu’s nomination.
Giving Liu the Nobel Peace Prize, Lundetsad quoted Fu as saying, “would pull the wrong strings in relations between Norway and China, it would be seen as an unfriendly act.”
Some have speculated that the pressure may have actually pushed the Nobel committee toward doing exactly what China did not want.