Jailed Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize for his struggle to promote human rights and democracy, an award that was denounced by authorities in Beijing.
The announcement prompted President Barack Obama to urge the Chinese government to release Liu “as soon as possible.” Obama said in a statement that while China has made “dramatic progress” economically, “political reform has not kept pace.”
Liu, 54, was awarded the prize “for his long and non- violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China,” according to a statement by the Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo today. The decision violates the prize’s purpose and will harm relations with Norway, Ma Zhaoxu, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said in a statement on its website.
Liu, a writer, was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Dec. 25, 2009, on a charge of plotting to subvert the ruling Communist Party. He had been in custody since December 2008 for his role in organizing Charter 08, an open letter calling for direct elections and the freedom of assembly. More than 300 Chinese academics, lawyers and activists signed the letter.
“I want to tell the whole world: Liu Xiaobo is innocent, and I am proud of him,” Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, said in a telephone interview from China with Cable TV, a Hong Kong-based broadcaster. “It’s not just a prize for him, but for all those who persist in pushing for democracy, freedom and peace in China, and as well as all prisoners of conscience.”
While state-owned Xinhua News Agency didn’t report Liu’s award, it did publish the Foreign Ministry’s reaction and the government isn’t blocking access to foreign media reports about the prize. Chinese-language reports on the website of the British Broadcasting Corp. and the Wall Street Journal were accessible in Beijing and Shanghai.
China’s government has said Liu, as a convicted criminal, doesn’t deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.
“The person you just mentioned was sentenced to jail by Chinese judicial authorities for violation of Chinese law, and I think his acts are in complete contravention to the purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told reporters on Sept. 28.
The prize, along with literature, physics and medicine honors, was created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel and first awarded in 1901.
“China has made dramatic progress in economic reform and improving the lives of its people, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty,” Obama said today. “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 won the prize in 2009, less than a year after taking office, for efforts to strengthen diplomacy and cooperation, an award that sparked criticism from historians while drawing support from European politicians. Past laureates also include U.S. civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Teresa.
“As I said last year in Oslo, even as we respect the unique culture and traditions of different countries, America will always be a voice for those aspirations that are universal to all human beings,” Obama said in a statement.
Obama’s call for Liu’s release may add to tensions between the world’s two biggest economies, already at odds over trade matters, said Charles Freeman, a specialist in China studies at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The Chinese look at Liu and others who are pro-democracy as people who foment instability,” said Freeman. They see U.S. calls for greater freedoms essentially as calls for the overthrow of China’s ruling Communist Party, he said.
China has said a measure passed by the U.S. House last month aimed at pushing up the value of the yuan would hurt the global economy. The legislation would let domestic companies petition for duties on imports from China to compensate for the effect of a weak yuan.
Liu’s Charter 08 drew inspiration and its name from Charter 77, the dissident group founded in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s that urged that country’s then-Communist regime to respect human rights. Vaclav Havel, the former president of the Czech Republic, and other members of Charter 77 said in a letter published in the International Herald Tribune on Sept. 20 that the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize should be awarded to Liu.
“Despite Liu’s imprisonment, his ideas cannot be shackled,” Havel and two other Charter 77 members wrote in the letter. “Charter 08 has articulated an alternative vision of China, challenging the official line that any decisions on reforms are the exclusive province of the state.”
Liu also took part in the protests on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, returning home from studies at New York’s Columbia University. He was held in police custody for 21 months after the demonstrations were crushed on June 4 of that year and was sent to a labor camp for three years starting in 1996.
News on Liu’s case is censored in China. Jiang’s comments on the case during the Sept. 28 press conference were scrubbed from the Chinese-language transcript posted on the Foreign Ministry’s website. Netease.com Inc. today removed a section of its portal dedicated to reporting this year’s prize winners.
Thorbjoern Jagland, head of the Nobel Committee, said the group is “entirely independent” and not part of any government. The five-member Nobel Committee is led by Jagland, who was president of Norway’s parliament before last year becoming secretary general of the Council of Europe.
“This is a rather brave decision,” said Kristian Berg Harpviken, head of the Oslo-based International Peace Research Institute. “It’s certainly a decision that will be disputed, challenged by the Chinese. It is very likely that in the short term it will affect Norwegian-Chinese relations.”
Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said that “discussions of human rights issues” form part of the relationship with China and that the Norwegian government had raised Liu’s case several times.
“China has made huge economic and social progress over the last decades,” he said in the statement on the government’s website. “However, there are still challenges that need to be addressed with regard to several universal human rights.”
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Angela Cullen at email@example.com