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China's Liu Xiaobo wins Nobel Peace Prize

By John Pomfret
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 8, 2010; 5:20 PM

The first citizen of the People's Republic of China to win a Nobel prize was awarded the honor Friday for advocating greater freedom in his country.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee said in a statement that Liu Xiaobo - a prickly, chain-smoking dissident of moderate views - deserved the Nobel Peace Prize because of "his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China." Liu, 54, who is nearing the end of the first year of an 11-year prison sentence for subversion, becomes only the second person to win the peace prize while incarcerated, following German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who won it in 1935 while jailed by the Nazis.

President Obama, last year's Nobel peace laureate, called on China to release Liu and said the award reminded the world that while "China has made dramatic progress in economic reform and improving the lives of its people, . . . political reform has not kept pace."

Analysts said the honor appeared aimed at pressuring China to ease the crackdown on religious and political activists that has been a hallmark of President Hu Jintao's tenure. China's government denounced the award as "a desecration" and said the honor should have gone to someone focused on promoting international friendship and disarmament.

"Liu Xiaobo is a sentenced criminal who has violated Chinese law," Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said, adding that honoring Liu "runs counter to the principles of the Nobel Peace Prize."

Liu's win underscored the limits of China's influence even as the country emerges as a global power. In the run-up to the decision, China warned Norway that selecting Liu would affect mutual ties and dispatched a Foreign Ministry official to Oslo to press its case. The two countries are in the process of negotiating a free-trade deal, and Norway's oil industry - a crucial sector of its economy - wants to boost its business dealings in China. In a sign that it was unwilling to be cowed, however, Norway's government chose to publicize the Beijing official's ostensibly private visit.

The award also highlights another issue facing China as it makes the transition from developed country to superpower. As it has risen, China has lived by a dictum of Deng Xiaoping, the man who opened Communist China to the West: "Hide in the shadows, and focus on building ourselves." But China can no longer "hide in the shadows." It boasts the world's second-largest economy. Its appetites - for iron ore, natural gas and oil - roil markets around the world. Yet with size comes discomfiting scrutiny.

"China has become a big power in economic terms, as well as political terms," observed Thorbjoern Jagland, the Norwegian Nobel Committee chairman, "and it is normal that big powers should be under criticism." China, however, does not view such criticism as normal.

Liu is serving his 11-year sentence at Jinzhou prison in Liaoning, hundreds of miles from his home and from his wife, Liu Xia, in Beijing. In an interview shortly before the announcement, Liu Xia said she was thankful that her husband's physical condition seems to have improved in jail and grateful that he has been allowed to read and exchange regular letters with her.

"We have no regrets," she said. "All of this has been of our choosing. It will always be so. We'll bear the consequences together."

A prize with resonance

Analysts predicted that in the short term, China's one-party state would react to the award by intensifying an already stringent campaign against dissidents, religious activists and nongovernmental organizations. Although China outwardly appears strong, with a world-beating economic growth rate, prosecutions for "state security" offenses are approaching numbers not seen since the bloody crackdown on student-led protests around Tiananmen Square in 1989.

But in the long term, a wide spectrum of Chinese and foreigners said, Liu's award could resonate more deeply within China than any similar act in years - significantly more than the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the Dalai Lama in 1989, say, or the Nobel Prize in Literature given to dissident writer Gao Xingjian in 2000.

In the first place, Liu's status as the first mainland Chinese citizen to win a Nobel prize matters deeply in a nation that craves recognition by the West. (The Dalai Lama - who on Friday urged China to free Liu - has refugee status. Gao is a French citizen. And several Chinese-born physics prize winners, including Daniel Tsui in 1998 and Charles Kao last year, have also taken on other citizenships.)

Second, Liu is profoundly moderate. Unlike the exiled dissident Wei Jingsheng, who criticized Liu on Friday for being too understanding of the Chinese Communist Party, Liu has never advocated revolution. As such, he has escaped the sentence of irrelevance meted out to so many of his dissident contemporaries.

"You can say whatever you want in China today," he said in an interview with The Washington Post in 2002, acknowledging the huge strides made toward personal freedom since economic reforms began in the late 1970s. Then he added: "As long as you do it alone."

'A moth to the flame'

The crime that brought Liu his current, and longest, sentence was volunteering to have his name lead a list of signatories to a manifesto known as Charter 08. Modeled on the Charter 77 movement in Cold War-era Czechoslovakia, Charter 08 called for greater freedom of expression, association, assembly and religion, meaningful elections and a judiciary not controlled by the Communist Party.

To date, more than 8,000 people have signed it.

Published on Dec. 10, 2008, the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the charter was intended "to put a stake in the ground and say here's an alternate vision of China," said Perry Link, a renowned China scholar who helped the group translate its manifesto into English. "It was definitely a long-term program."

Link, who spent a month with Liu and others as the manifesto went from one draft to another, recalled that Liu did not start out as a leader of the group. "But once he saw it was going somewhere, he naturally volunteered to be out front," Link said.

Liu didn't hog publicity, Link added. "He just doesn't shrink from putting his head on the line. He was like a moth to the flame."

Liu had taken such risks before. In 1989, he left a comfortable post as a visiting scholar at Columbia University to return to China to participate in demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, after which he was jailed.

After Liu's sentencing last year, his attorney released a simple statement by his client: "I have long been aware that when an independent intellectual stands up to an autocratic state, step one toward freedom is often a step into prison," it said. "Now I am taking that step; and true freedom is that much nearer."

Correspondent William Wan in Beijing contributed to this report.

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