Chinese Dissident Liu Xiaobo Wins Nobel Peace Prize

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Liu Xiaobo and his wife Liu Xia in an undated photo.

In a sharp rebuke to Beijing, the Nobel Committee named imprisoned Chinese scholar Liu Xiaobo the 2010 Peace Prize winner for "his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China." The decision by the five-member committee appointed by the Norwegian Parliament comes over the objection of the Chinese government, which considers Liu a criminal.

But when the Norwegian Nobel Committee chairman, Thorbjoern Jagland, announced the award, commenting that, "China has become a big power in economic terms as well as political terms, and it is normal that big powers should be under criticism," it's been reported that the broadcast on the BBC and CNN went black. This will have affected both tourist and upmarket foreign hotels as well as places where foreigners gather, with the blackout extending to reports on the Prize which later aired. Major mainland news portals have yet to publish news of Liu's prize. On Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter, users were briefly permitted to post his name. There have also been complaints that text messages containing "Liu Xiaobo" were blocked by the major cell phone service providers.

The Chinese government has since responded to Lui's award. "To give the Peace Prize to such a person is completely contrary to the purpose of the award and a blasphemy of the Peace Prize," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement posted on the ministry's website. He added that the award could harm China's relations with Norway. As for Lui's wife — surrounded by police at their Beijing apartment — Liu Xia wasn't allowed out to meet reporters, giving brief remarks by phone and text message instead. She said she was happy and planned to deliver the news to Liu at prison on Saturday. In a statement on her behalf by Freedom Now (the legal NGO which has advocated for Liu Xiaobo), she said, "I am grateful to the Nobel Committee for selecting my husband, Liu Xiaobo, to be the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. It is a true honor for him and one for which I know he would say he is not worthy ... I hope that the international community will take this opportunity to call on the Chinese government to press for my husband's release."

A literary critic who was a leader of the 1989 antigovernment protests in Beijing, Liu, 54, has endured multiple bouts of detention and house arrest for criticizing the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party. Last year, he was sentenced on Christmas Day, when much of the foreign press was away, to 11 years in prison for "inciting subversion of state power." He is now held in a cell with five common criminals at Jinzhou Prison in Liaoning province, about 500 km northeast of Beijing, where his wife lives. The evidence against him was a series of essays he had written questioning the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party and Charter 08, a human-rights manifesto that he co-authored. In January, a group including Václav Havel and Peace Prize laureates Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama co-signed an article saying Liu deserved the prize for "his bravery and clarity of thought about China's future."

While a few Peace Prize laureates had been previously locked up by the regimes they rallied against — most famously Nelson Mandela in apartheid-era South Africa — it is rare for the award to be given to someone still imprisoned. Liu now joins Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi and German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who won the 1935 prize while jailed by the Nazis, as the only Nobel Peace Prize laureates honored while in detention. While oddsmakers had listed Liu as the favorite for this year's prize, many of his closest supporters doubted his chances. "I don't think he can win," his wife had previously told TIME before the announcement. "But whether he wins or not, this will help bring attention to his case."

The Nobel Prize has long been a sensitive subject for China. While physicists such as Frank Yang and Lee Tsung-Dao and novelist Gao Xingjian have won the prize after leaving China, no mainland Chinese resident has ever won a Nobel. The Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader whom China considers a citizen, was awarded the Peace Prize in 1989 after the Chinese government's bloody crackdown on demonstrators in Beijing. Last year Shanghai-born Charles K. Kao shared the Physics Prize for his work on fiber optics, but he now holds U.S. and U.K. citizenship. The People's Republic hungers for a Nobel it can call its own. But it opposed the prize for Liu. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu said earlier this month that Liu broke the law, and "his actions are completely counter to the purpose of the Nobel Prize." In September, the head of the Norwegian Nobel Institute told the Norwegian news agency NTB that he had been warned by a Chinese diplomat that awarding Liu would damage relations between Oslo and Beijing.

Coming at a time when China has successfully hosted an Olympic Games and a World Expo, the prize will take some of the shine of the nation's triumphant rise and bring renewed attention to the Communist Party's authoritarian rule. While China's economic boom has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty, China suffers from pervasive corruption, arbitrary rule of law and persecution of religious and ethnic minorities. Much of the social control in the Mao eras has withered, but those, like Liu, who challenge the rule of the Communist Party can still suffer severely.

Liu's honor is unlikely to have any immediate impact on those problems. And in the short run it could make life worse both for Liu himself and reformers within and outside the government. But Liu's supporters say it will have an effect. "Every Chinese person should be proud and happy," says Mo Shaoping, a lawyer who represented Liu until he was blocked by the government."Liu Xiaobo is so far the only Chinese-educated Chinese person to have won the Nobel prize in China. I think this means that the Nobel Prize committee has recognized Liu's efforts in peacefully promoting China's democratic transition. Third, I think this might in the future earn him an early release from prison."

Perry Link, a Sinologist at University of California-Riverside who worked with Liu to translate Charter 08, a pro-democracy document demanding political reforms, says, "The biggest benefit, in my opinion, would be that a prize for Liu Xiaobo would help millions of Chinese, both inside China and around the world, to see and feel more clearly that 'China' can be much more than the Chinese Communist Party." Activism by Liu and others shows that "China can be something different, something better than a worn-out old-style authoritarian government," says Link. "Giving the Prize to Liu would provide a huge boost to that new vision of what a healthier China can be."

Liu helped create one such vision two years ago with Charter 08, a manifesto that called for extensive reforms to the Chinese political system including democratic elections, separation of powers and an independent judiciary. The 4,000-word document was originally signed by 303 Chinese intellectuals, and once posted online, thousands more people both in China and overseas added their names. While most of the original, China-based signers were detained, interrogated or otherwise harassed by police, Liu suffered the most extreme penalty. The goal, say human rights activists, was to intimidate those who might rally against the authoritarian rule of the Communist Party.

Liu was initially dismissive of the possible impact of the manifesto, says Link, but he changed his mind and became a fervid organizer, volunteering to sign first, knowing that would make him the target of retaliation. That parallels his response to the demonstrations of 1989. Liu, who had developed a reputation as an "angry young man" for his acerbic criticism of Chinese literature, was dismissive of previous student demonstrations. But as he watched the protests in Tiananmen Square grow, he flew back to China from the U.S., where he was a visiting scholar at Columbia University. In Beijing, he became a leading advocate for democratization of the protest groups and tried to prevent further bloodshed by negotiating with People's Liberation Army troops and urging protesters to evacuate Tiananmen Square on the night of June 3.

He expressed a similar calm and forbearance during his trial last year, responding not with anger but magnanimity. Liu said he had no hatred for the police, prosecutors or judges who put him behind bars. Rejecting such toxic emotions was critical for the overall good of the nation, he wrote in a final statement to the Beijing court. "Hatred is corrosive of a person's wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation's spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society's tolerance and humanity, and block a nation's progress to freedom and democracy."