IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Obama to China: Free Nobel-winning dissident

/ Source: msnbc.com staff and news service reports

Imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for "his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights" — a decision that produced a bitter reaction from the Chinese government as well as renewed calls for his release from President Barack Obama and others.

"China has made dramatic progress in economic reform and improving the lives of its people," Obama, last year's Nobel peace laureate, said in a statement. "But 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. We call on the Chinese government to release Mr. Liu as soon as possible."

Thorbjoern Jagland, the Norwegian Nobel Committee chairman, said China's government should expect its policies to face scrutiny as it has transformed into a big power both economically and politically.

"We have to speak when others cannot speak," Jagland told reporters. "As China is rising, we should have the right to criticize ... We want to advance those forces that want China to become more democratic."

In its written citation, the committee praised Liu and noted his history of leadership.

"Through the severe punishment meted out to him, Liu has become the foremost symbol of this wide-ranging struggle for human rights in China," the citation concluded.

The prize is worth 10 million Swedish crowns ($1.5 million) and will be awarded in Oslo on Dec. 10. It was not immediately known who would collect the prize if Liu could not do so.

Jagland told The Associated Press that the committee had not tried to reach the imprisoned laureate or his wife, Liu Xia, but they would try to make contact with the Chinese Embassy in Oslo.

Unlike some in China's highly fractured and persecuted dissident community, the 54-year-old Liu has been an ardent advocate for peaceful, gradual political change, rather than a violent confrontation with the government.

The Nobel citation said China's new status a big economic and political power must entail increased responsibility.

"China is in breach of several international agreements to which it is a signatory, as well as of its own provisions concerning political rights," it said, citing an article in China's constitution about freedom of speech and assembly.

"In practice, these freedoms have proved to be distinctly curtailed for China's citizens," the citation said.

'I can hardly believe it'
Liu Xia said she hoped the international community would now press China to free her husband, adding that the country itself should "have pride in his selection, and release him from prison." He is serving an 11-year sentence for subversion, which was imposed last year.

She said she had not expected her husband to win. "I can hardly believe it because my life has been filled with too many bad things," she said in an emotional telephone interview with Hong Kong's Cable television.

"This prize is not only for Xiaobo but for everyone working for human rights and justice in China," she added.

The Reuters news agency later spoke to her by phone and she told them that Beijing police were taking her to the prison in Jinzhou in the northeastern province of Liaoning, where her husband was being held.

"They are forcing me to leave Beijing," said Liu Xia as her brothers packed her bags with plainclothes police waiting for her outside. "They want me to go to Liaoning to see Xiaobo. They want to distance me from the media."

The Dalai Lama also called on China to release Liu, saying the the peace prize was the international community's recognition of increasing voices within China for reform.

The Dalai Lama was awarded the 1989 peace prize, but China vilifies him as a traitor for seeking more autonomy for Tibet.

"I believe in the years ahead, future generations of Chinese will be able to enjoy the fruits of the efforts that the current Chinese citizens are making toward responsible governance," he said in a statement on his website.

In China, broadcasts of CNN, which is available in tourist hotels, upmarket foreign hotels and places where foreigners gather, went black during the Nobel announcement and when reports about the award later aired.

China said the decision would hurt its relations with Norway.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement Friday that the award should have gone to someone who had promoted international friendship and disarmament.

"Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who has been sentenced by Chinese judicial departments for violating Chinese law," it said.

'Blasphemy'
Awarding the prize to Liu "runs completely counter to the principle of the prize and is also a blasphemy to the peace prize," it added.

China later summoned Norway's ambassador in Beijing to make a formal protest, Norway's foreign ministry said.

"They wanted to officially share their opinion, their disagreement and their protest," a ministry spokeswoman said. "We emphasised that this is an independent committee and the need to continue good bilateral relations between our countries."

It was the first Nobel for the Chinese dissident community since it resurfaced after the country's communist leadership launched economic, but not political reforms three decades ago.

The last dissident to win the Nobel Peace Prize was Iranian lawyer and human rights campaigner Shirin Ebadi, in 2003.

The win could jolt a current debate among the leadership and the elite over whether China should begin democratic reforms and if so how quickly.

Liu co-authored a document, Charter 08, which called for greater freedoms and an end to the Communist Party's political dominance.

It was an intentional echo of Charter 77, the famous call for human rights in then-Czechoslovakia that led to the 1989 Velvet Revolution that swept away communist rule.

"The democratization of Chinese politics can be put off no longer," Charter 08 says.

Thousands of Chinese signed Charter 08, and the Communist Party took the document as a direct challenge.

Liu's arrest and trial
Police arrested Liu hours before Charter 08 was due to be released in December 2008. Given a brief trial last Christmas Day, Liu was convicted of subversion for writing it and other political tracts and given the 11-year sentence.

In a year with a record 237 nominations for the peace prize, Liu had been considered a favorite, with open support from winners Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama and others.

The son of a soldier, Liu joined China's first wave of university students in the mid-1970s after the chaotic decade of the Cultural Revolution.

Liu's writing first took a political turn in 1988, when he became a visiting scholar in Oslo — his first time outside China.

Liu cut short a visiting scholar stint at Columbia University months later to join the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989. He and three other older activists famously persuaded students to peacefully leave the square hours before the deadly June 4 crackdown.

Liu went to prison after the incident and was released in early 1991 because he had repented and "performed major meritorious services," state media said at the time, without elaborating.

Still, five years later Liu was sent to a re-education camp for three years for co-writing an open letter that demanded the impeachment of then-President Jiang Zemin.

Past winnersPrevious winners of the award include Obama, former Vice President Al Gore, former President Jimmy Carter, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa and former South African President Nelson Mandela.

In an earlier interview with Norwegian broadcast network NRK, committee chair Jagland explained some of the decision-making process.

"We have to try to capture what is happening in the world, identify what we want to encourage and I think we are able to achieve that (with this year's prize)." Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister, has been in charge of the committee since 2009.

Last year's choice of Obama, less than nine months into his term, triggered sharp criticism. Nobel watchers had said the panel was likely to select a more traditional laureate this year.

"It will be an interesting prize this year, as well, and one that can set the agenda," Jagland said of this year's choice.