BEIJING — Infuriating the Chinese government, the Nobel Committee today awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned pro-democracy activist Liu Xiaobo.
The committee said it had picked Liu, the first Chinese recipient, for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” He was sentenced to an unusually harsh 11-year jail term last Christmas Day for having authored a petition demanding broad political reform in China.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said the award “profanes the Nobel Peace Prize” in a statement carried on the ministry’s website. Liu “was sentenced to jail…for violation of Chinese law and I think his acts are in complete contravention to the purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize,” Mr. Ma said.
Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, told the Monitor that she hopes the award “will be an opportunity to help China become a mainstream civilized society.” She hoped too, she adds, that it would lead to the early release of her husband, to whom police were taking her Friday evening for a prison visit.
Chinese websites carried no news of the award other than a brief report from the state-run Xinhua news agency quoting Mr. Ma’s statement. References to Liu’s award were being deleted from Internet chatrooms, and mobile phone operators blocked all text messages containing the three Chinese characters forming Liu’s name.
Chinese activists emboldened
Human rights activists in Beijing heard and welcomed the news, however. “I am so very glad because we are not alone any more,” says Cui Weiping, a democracy advocate who teaches at the China Film Academy. “Our actions are approved and supported by the whole world.”
“In the long run…this will encourage Chinese human rights activists to strive for democracy and freedom,” agrees Teng Biao, Liu’s lawyer.
In the immediate future, however, he fears that “the government’s control over human rights issues will be even stronger. More activists may be arrested.”
Rebuke to Chinese authorities
The Nobel Committee made it plain that it intended the award as a rebuke to the Chinese authorities, which it accused of breaching the Chinese Constitution’s own safeguards of human rights such as the freedoms of speech, assembly, and of the press.
“In practice these freedoms have proved to be distinctly curtailed for China’s citizens,” the committee’s statement said.
Liu, a scholarly literary critic and political essayist, co-authored “Charter 08” – an appeal launched on the Internet and subsequently signed by thousands of Chinese citizens — demanding an end to the ruling Communist party’s monopoly on power, free speech, and religious freedom, among other reforms.
He was arrested just before the Charter was published in December 2008, and a year later was sentenced to one of the most severe sentences in recent memory for the crime of “incitement to subversion of state power.”
“Liu was sentenced to eleven years in prison for expressing his views” said Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland, explaining the award. “It was unavoidable for the committee to award him this year.”
Record of pro-democracy activism
Liu has been active in the Chinese pro-democracy movement for more than two decades. He took part in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, drawing attention to himself by negotiating the withdrawal of most of the students from the square before the Army moved in, thus averting more bloodshed.
He spent 18 months in jail for his role at Tiananmen, and was later banned from teaching. In 1995 he was sentenced to three years of “re-education through labor” for writing essays critical of the government.
This work, and the long jail sentence he is currently serving, made Liu “the foremost symbol of this wide ranging struggle for human rights in China,” the Nobel committee statement said.
While the Chinese government put on a angry face following the announcement, Beijing will likely also be embarrassed at Friday’s award.
“This award will no doubt infuriate the Chinese government by putting its human rights record squarely back into the international debate,” says Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “But this Nobel Prize honors not only Liu’s unflinching advocacy; it honors all those in China who struggle daily to make the government more accountable.”
Jagland said that while China’s new economic power might make some cautious about criticizing it, “we are giving the message now that it is absolutely necessary to keep an eye on what is going on inside China. If you are not doing that you are betraying human rights defenders in China and…you are lowering the standards we have set up in the international community.”