BEIJING (Reuters) - The euphoria overseas and in some domestic circles at dissident Liu Xiaobo’s winning of the Nobel Peace Prize has failed to mask deeper unease that his victory will likely bring little change in Communist Party-ruled China.
Liu, 54, has been a thorn in the government’s side since 1989 when he joined student protesters on a hunger strike days before the army crushed the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement and has been in and out of jail ever since.
Yet in today’s booming and bustling Beijing — with its luxury boutiques, well-dressed residents and sleek new subway lines — the heady days of 1989 are a distant memory and public discussion is taboo. Few people know who Liu is.
“I’ve never heard of him,” said one Beijing businessman waving his hand dismissively, who gave his family name as Han, in comments typical of those heard on the street when Liu’s name is mentioned. “I’m too busy to watch television.”
The award was largely ignored by Chinese media, apart from a few brief newspaper articles carrying the Foreign Ministry’s condemnation of the decision as an “obscenity.”
The popular tabloid the Global Times, however, published an angry commentary saying the Nobel Peace Prize was in danger of becoming “a political tool of the West.”
“It is disrespectful to the majority of Chinese and another arrogant display of Western ideology,” it wrote of the award.
The government’s grip on power is as tight as ever, and it has shown no signs of relaxing its stance toward the small band of Chinese “rights defenders” who continue to mount seemingly futile legal challenges against the Party.
Many signers of the “Charter 08” petition which called for sweeping political reforms have either been locked away, put under house arrest or otherwise harassed. Perhaps the most famous of whom is Liu, jailed last Christmas Day for 11 years.
“Is China going to bow to international opprobrium? I think it very unlikely,” said Nicholas Bequelin, a researcher on China with Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group.
“But the prize will add fuel to continued pressure on the Party to adapt further to respond to social demands, which now include a functioning legal system, rule of law, greater freedom of expression and freer media.”
Where once human rights were a hot topic of discussion during meetings between Chinese leaders and their counterparts in the West, these days the lure of China’s red hot economy amid a global downturn has muted criticism.
“Liu’s winning will put more of an international spotlight on the situation in China which has been lacking and that’s good,” Xinna, the wife of imprisoned ethnic Mongolian rights activist Hada, told Reuters from the northwestern city of Hohhot.
“But controls on us are tougher than even a few years ago. Things I could once read on the Internet are no longer accessible,” she added, speaking by telephone.
“The restriction on the flow of information means that some activists I know had never heard of Liu until yesterday. This does not give me much hope going forward,” said Xinna, whose husband is one of China’s longest-serving political prisoners.
The mobile telephone of Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, was turned off on Saturday. She told Reuters on Friday that the police were forcing her out of town to prevent her from talking to reporters, and that she was being taken to see her husband in jail.
There was a heavy security presence outside Liu’s jail in the northeastern city of Jinzhou, some 350 km (220 miles) from Beijing, with police searching passing cars and preventing people getting close to the drab detention buildings.
Still, some long-time activists see a glimmer of hope, pointing to comments by Premier Wen Jiabao in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen in August calling for political reform to safeguard the country’s economic health.
“If Wen is clever, he should use Liu’s winning of the peace prize to exert pressure on the conservative faction in the Party,” human rights lawyer Mo Shaoping told Reuters.
“There are those who think that the leadership does not speak with one voice on this issue. Liu’s prize could act as a starting point for reform.”
Additional reporting by K.J. Kwon in Jinzhou, China; Editing by Nick Macfie