OSLO/BEIJING (Reuters) - Jailed Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for two decades of non-violent struggle for human rights, infuriating China, which called the award “an obscenity”.
The prize shines a spotlight on human rights in China at a time when it is starting to play a leading role on the global stage as a result of its growing economic might.
“We have to speak when others cannot speak,” Norwegian Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland told Reuters. “As China is rising, we should have the right to criticize.”
The award drew muted reactions from the European Union, France, Germany and Britain.
But last year’s winner, U.S. President Barack Obama, accused China of falling behind on political reforms as its economy surges, and urged it to free Liu Xiaobo as soon as possible.
Liu Xiaobo rose to prominence as a strike leader during the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989.
He was sentenced to 11 years’ jail last December for writing a manifesto calling for free speech and multi-party elections.
The Nobel Committee praised him for his “long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights” and reiterated its belief in a “close connection between human rights and peace”.
China, which had warned against giving the prize to Liu, summoned Norway’s ambassador to protest.
“This is an obscenity against the peace prize,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement.
“(Liu‘s) actions are diametrically opposed to the aims of the Nobel prize. Nobel’s behest was that the Nobel Peace Prize be awarded to somebody who promoted peace between peoples, promoted international friendship and disarmament.”
Beijing residents reported that CNN and BBC broadcasts were cut when the prize was mentioned.
Activists say human rights have dropped down the agenda of Western powers wary of upsetting China, now the world’s second largest economy.
Britain, France, Germany and the European Union all congratulated Liu, saying they had lobbied for his release from prison, but were careful to avoid direct criticism of China.
Obama was more pointed.
He said China had made dramatic progress in fighting poverty, but that “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”.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the award of the prize to Liu underscored growing concern around the world about human rights and he hoped any disagreement over the decision would not damage the global rights cause.
In a carefully worded statement, Ban also praised China, which he said “has achieved remarkable economic advances, lifted millions out of poverty, broadened political participation and steadily joined the international mainstream in its adherence to recognized human rights instruments and practices.”
Jagland told Reuters: “It would have been very damaging for the Committee if one could say: ‘No, we do not dare to give the prize to someone from this big economic and political power’.”
The Dalai Lama, whose receipt of the Peace Prize in 1989 similarly angered China, said the prize highlighted “the international community’s recognition of the increasing voices among the Chinese people” pushing for reforms.
Liu’s wife Liu Xia told Reuters: ”His friends repeatedly told me that they thirsted for Liu Xiaobo to win the prize more than he himself did because they think it would be an opportunity to change China ...
“Xiaobo is innocent. The constitution guarantees freedom of speech. They (the authorities) broke the law first.”
Outside the couple’s apartment in western Beijing, there was a heavy police presence on Friday.
Liu Xia said the police were taking her to Liu Xiaobo’s prison in Jinzhou, in northeastern China, in an apparent effort to prevent foreign reporters speaking to her.
“They are forcing me to leave Beijing,” she said as her brothers packed her bags, with plainclothes officers waiting for her outside.
Liu Xiaobo, a former literature professor, was jailed last December for subversion of state power. He had been arrested as lead author of Charter 08, a manifesto by intellectuals and activists calling for democratic reform in the one-party state.
In 1989, Liu was pilloried by China as one of the “black hands” who fomented the Tiananmen protests, although he was among a group of intellectuals who tried to defuse the standoff before it ended with army shootings that killed hundreds of students and residents.
A 20-month jail sentence followed, and he also spent three years in a “labor re-education” camp in the 1990s.
Passers-by outside the block did not appear impressed by China’s new high-profile dissident.
“The Western world’s choice is different from ours,” said one man, who asked not to be identified. “It does not mean that people receiving the award have contributed to the peace process.”
The prize is worth 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.5 million) and will be awarded in Oslo on December 10. It was not clear who would collect the prize if Liu could not. (Additional reporting by Gwladys Fouche, Walter Gibbs, Terje Solsvik and Joachim Dagenborg in Oslo, Patricia Zengerle in Washington, European bureaux, Lucy Hornby and Maxim Duncan in Beijing; Editing by Kevin Liffey)