The Nobel Prize committee in Norway has been criticised by China for awarding this year’s peace prize to Liu Xiaobo (photo, from aljazeera.net), a jailed Chinese rights activist.
In Beijing, authorities said awarding the “criminal” Liu ran contrary to the principles of the award, and warned ties with Norway would suffer as a result.
The Chinese government also summoned the Norwegian ambassador in China to protest against the committee’s decision.
“This is an obscenity against the peace prize,” Ma Zhaoxu, a foreign ministry spokesman, said in an official statement.
Thorbjoern Jagland, the Nobel Committee chairman, announced the award in Norway’s capital, Oslo, on Friday. He said Liu was a symbol for the fight for human rights in China.
“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,” he said.
Last Christmas Day, the 54-year-old literary critic and former professor was sentenced to 11 years in jail for subversion. Liu is accused of helping to organise and disseminate a document called Charter 08, which calls for sweeping political reforms in China, including freedom of assembly, expression and religion.
The Nobel Committee was defended by Norway’s ministry of foreign affairs, who said it is “an independent” body “which makes decisions independently of the Norwegian government”.
“So any decision made by the committee should not be seen as an official reaction or comment on what’s going on [in China],” Ragnhild Imerslund, a spokeswoman for the ministry, told Al Jazeera.
Imerslund said it was “normal in diplomacy” for Chinese officials to contact Norwegian diplomats.
“The meeting was conducted in a constructive tone and we emphasised … that Norway is eager to continue bilateral relations with China,” she said.
Earlier, the Norwegian foreign minister, Jonas Gahr Stoere, emphasised that the award should not cause a hostile Chinese reaction.
“There are no grounds to direct any measures against Norway as a country, and I think it would have a negative effect on China’s reputation if it did,” he told the Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
As a reaction to the award, China was urged to free Liu by France, Germany and Taiwan’s main opposition party.
The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader won the Nobel Peace prize in 1989 but China considers him a traitor because of his struggle for a more autonomous Tibet. The Dalai Lama congratulated Liu and called for his release.
Liu has called for the reform of China’s one-party Communist system and was jailed for 21 months for taking part in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
In 1996, he served another three years in a “re-education” camp for seeking the release of prisoners jailed in the Tiananmen demonstrations.
According to Jagland, the Nobel Committee chairman, Liu has become a symbol for the struggle for human rights in China.
“The campaign to establish universal human rights also in China is being waged by many Chinese, both in China itself and abroad,” he said.
“Through the severe punishment meted out to him, Liu has become the foremost symbol of this wide-ranging struggle for human rights in China.”
Vincent Brossel, head of the Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders, has met Liu several times. He told Al Jazeera that Liu deserved the award because “he’s a very peaceful advocate of freedom of expression and democracy”. He added that Liu is a unique representative of the struggle between dictatorship and democracy.
“Xiaobo is a gentle and brave person, he will probably give away the award to all political prisoners in China and all over the world,” Brossel added.
According to Al Jazeera’s Melissa Chan, reporting from Beijing, Liu is well known in China.
“Most people in China actually know his name. The thing with Chinese human rights activists is that they tend to be known outside their country more than they’re known inside their country, because of the censorship issues for example,” she said.
“But Liu was a prominent writer before he became an activist.
“Not only is he known in the intelligentsia and the academic world. His political manifesto, Charter 08, has picked up more than 10,000 signatures and these Chinese who have signed on to this charter say they are from all walks of life.”
‘Represents every single one’
Nicholas Bequelin, senior Asia researcher with Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera that even though Liu is imprisoned, “he will be comforted when he learns about it (the prize), but it won’t really change him”.
Bequelin described Liu as “someone who is ready to go to prison for his ideas and he knew it when he signed this document, this Charter 08 … he has never sought international fame”.
Bequelin said that Liu was likely awarded the prize because he “really stands for all the activists and political prisoners in China. He really represents every single one of them because his key struggle has been for freedom of expression and freedom of expression is the basis of any advocacy and any efforts towards greater human rights protection”.
Several people had been calling for Liu to get the peace prize, including at least four former winners of the prize : Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, the Dalai Lama and the Czech politician Vaclav Havel.
Barack Obama, the US president and winner of the peace prize last year, has also called for Liu’s release.
After hearing about Liu’s award, his wife thanked his supporters and called for his release.
“I’m so excited, I’m so excited, I don’t know what to say,” Liu Xia told the news agency AFP.
“I strongly ask that the Chinese government release Liu Xiaobo.”
237 individuals and organisations were considered by the Nobel Committee this year for the prestigious prize.
Alfred Nobel, a Swedish industrialist and the inventor of dynamite, established the Nobel prizes. They were first handed out in 1901.
In his will, Nobel said the peace prize should be given to the person who “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”.
In line with the founder’s wishes, the award of $1.5m will be handed out in Oslo on December 10, while the other Nobel prize ceremonies are held in Sweden. Sweden and Norway were joined in a union during Nobel’s lifetime.
The five voting members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee are appointed by the Norwegian parliament. They select the laureate for the Peace prize.
Each year, the committee invites qualified people to submit nominations for the prize.