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China remains uncompromising in response to Nobel


Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 4:25 p.m. HST, Oct 9, 2010

BEIJING — Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to an imprisoned Chinese dissident sparked praise from Western governments, brought condemnation from Beijing and is exposing the difficulties fitting a powerful, authoritarian China into the international order.

A day after Liu Xiaobo was named the winner, a touchy Chinese government built upon its initially angry response Saturday.

Authorities escorted Liu's wife from Beijing to the northeastern city where he is imprisoned but did not let her see him to deliver news of the honor. That will have to wait until Sunday, a family member said.

Activist lawyers in Beijing inspired by the award to hold a get-together said police followed them and told them to stay home, preventing them from meeting.

While the government sank into official silence as did much of the state media, a tabloid newspaper affiliated with the ruling Communist Party's flagship People's Daily caustically criticized the prize as part of a Western plot to sow divisiveness in a rising China.

"Good Chinese have reason to suspect that the Nobel Peace Prize has been reduced to a political tool of Western interests," said the popular Global Times. "What they're doing now is using the Peace Prize to tear a hole in Chinese society."

The message that Westerners are out to get China has frequently been used by the leadership to inspire nationalism, and is likely to be promoted anew in coming days to prevent ordinary Chinese from granting Liu and the dissident community any prestige the award might confer.

But the government's uncompromising line seems far from what the Nobel committee honored the 54-year-old Liu for — more than two decades of advocacy of human rights and peaceful democratic change — and from how it hoped Beijing would respond. Members of the Norway-based committee said the award should encourage China to become a more responsible global force and avoid the arrogance of power. President Barack Obama and other world leaders echoed the theme, calling for greater respect for human rights.

That gap between Beijing's authoritarian ways and the way some in the West hope it will behave yawns uncomfortably as the world tries to make room for a China with a rapidly growing resource-hungry economy, a large military and hundreds of millions of citizens joining the consumer classes.

Getting China wrong could prove troublesome as the U.S. and other powers try to quell terrorism, halt nuclear proliferation, revive growth that is flagging in much of the West and deal with other global troubles.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested that China's anger at the Nobel might impede rights work elsewhere. In a statement released by his spokesman, Ban said it was "his sincere hope that any differences on this decision will not detract from advancement of the human rights agenda globally."

Over the past week, Chinese negotiators rallied developing nations and scolded the U.S. on another big global issue — climate change; partly as a result, negotiations for a new agreement to stem global warming made little progress.

The Chinese leadership is feeling embattled. Its currency policies are under fire from Europe and the U.S., where Congress is threatening punitive legislation that some worry could set off a trade war. Territorial disputes recently flared anew with Japan and Southeast Asian neighbors. Meanwhile at home, the government is trying to keep rising property and living costs, wide income disparities and a debate among the elite over political reform from upending a transition to younger leaders two years from now.

Liu's Nobel adds to the sense of pressure, feeding worries that it may carry his previously little-heard message of gradual peaceful change to Chinese wired to the Internet and mobile phones. It also aggravates the government's view that China is misunderstood in the world and under-appreciated for all the progress it has made in raising living standards — a sentiment shared by many Chinese.

The government's recent high-profile forays to change international perceptions have largely fizzled, reinforcing Chinese feelings of being misperceived. The grandiose and nearly flawless Beijing Olympics in 2008 left many foreigners feeling overawed at state control. At last year's Frankfurt Book Fair when China was the guest of honor, Chinese cultural officials and diplomats tried to pressure organizers not to invite dissident authors, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not, but stoking a debate about Chinese censorship.

Ever since party leaders sent the military to crush the Tiananmen Square democracy movement and set back relations with the people, the government has tried to promote nationalism as a unifier. It is likely to turn up the volume in coming days, banking that the Nobel will backfire.

"The symbolism of awarding Liu Xiaobo the award will be lost on many people. They will see it as having a go at China," said Anne-Marie Brady, a Chinese politics expert at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. "The average person has so much more freedom than they ever had in the post-'49 period. There's a strong feeling of 'don't rock the boat too far, don't prod into sensitive areas.'"

Police kept reporters away from the prison where Liu is serving an 11-year sentence for subversion, and his lawyer said that Liu's wife — who had been hoping to visit him Saturday and tell him the news of the award-- has "disappeared" and he is worried she may be in police custody.

Chinese authorities, who called Liu a criminal shortly after his award Friday and said his winning "desecrates the prize," sank Saturday into official silence.

Only an editorial in the state-run Global Times newspaper spoke out Saturday, saying in English, "Obviously, the Nobel Peace Prize this year is meant to irritate China, but it will not succeed. On the contrary, the committee disgraced itself."

The paper's Chinese-language edition called the award "an arrogant showcase of Western ideology" and said it disrespected the Chinese people.

But one Chinese newspaper cartoonist, Kuang Biao, posted an image on his blog Friday of a Nobel prize medal behind bars.

In naming Liu, the Norwegian-based Nobel committee honored his more than two decades of advocacy for human rights and peaceful democratic change — from the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 to a manifesto for political reform that he co-authored in 2008 and which led to his latest jail term.

President Barack Obama, last year's peace prize winner, called for Liu's immediate release.

But there was still no word from the winner himself. The mobile phone of his wife, Liu Xia, was turned off Saturday as she was expected to be en route with police to the prison to meet her husband.

"She's disappeared. We're all worried about them," Liu's lawyer, Shang Baojun, told The Associated Press on Saturday.

He said even Liu Xia's mother had been unable to reach her.

Liu's wife's freedom of movement had been shrinking since the eve of the Nobel announcement when, she said, police came to her apartment to try to get her out of Beijing, offering her a prison visit with Liu. She wanted to stay for the announcement and planned to hold an impromptu news conference with reporters. But police would not let her leave the apartment and on Friday night, she said she was negotiating terms to visit Liu on Saturday and tell him the news.

Police often force political critics, religious dissenters and sometimes their family members to leave Beijing ahead of sensitive anniversaries, often putting them up in guesthouses and keeping them out of the way for days and weeks.

Beth Schwanke with the Washington-based Freedom Now, an organization that serves as Liu's international counsel, said, "We're very concerned that the government might use this as a pretext for detaining her."

Liu's wife has said she hopes to go to Norway to collect the Nobel medal and its prize money of 10 million Swedish kronor (about $1.5 million), if he cannot.

Two years into an 11-year jail term at the prison 300 miles (500 kilometers) from Beijing, the slight, 54-year-old literary critic was not expected to find out about the award until the meeting with his wife.

Shang said it was not likely that winning the prize would have any big effect on Liu's prison sentence. "Unless (President) Hu Jintao signs some sort of special order ... but there's no precedent for that," the lawyer said. In past years, China would release certain dissidents after international pressure, but not because they won major awards.

Liu is the first peace prize winner chosen while serving a criminal prison sentence, although several laureates, including Myanmar democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi (1991) and German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky (1935) were in custody without a legal trial. Still others, like Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov (1975) and Polish Solidarity leader Lech Walesa (1983), were prevented by their governments from going to Norway to accept the prize.

The government arrested Liu in December 2008, hours before he released a document named Charter 08 that called for greater freedoms and for the Communist Party to give way to gradual, democratic change.

In announcing the peace prize Friday, the Nobel committee issued a challenge to China to live up to its responsibilities as the world's second-largest economy and a burgeoning diplomatic and military power.

Liu had been virtually unknown among ordinary Chinese. University students in Beijing were wrestling Friday night with a mix of pride and suspicion over the award. Students on the online bulletin board of China's top university were asking angrily how someone in prison could win the peace prize, said Peking University student Yang Yuan.

"But then I thought about it — wasn't Mandela in prison?" Yang said. "So I just don't know about this."

South Africa's Nelson Mandela was actually awarded the Nobel Peace Prize three years after his release from prison. He shared the prize with then-South African leader F.W. de Klerk for their efforts to bring racial reconciliation.

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