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Nobel Peace Win Could Boost Reformers In China

Chinese officials reacted angrily to the news that this year's Nobel Peace Prize has gone to the country's most prominent dissident, but analysts say the decision could provide an opportunity for Chinese leaders who favor human rights reform.

Pro-democracy protesters hold a picture of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo with Chinese words reading: "Nobel Peace Prize winner held in jail is China's shame" and "Release Liu Xiaobo and all dissidents," during a demonstration Friday in Hong Kong. AP hide caption

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AP

Pro-democracy protesters hold a picture of Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo with Chinese words reading: "Nobel Peace Prize winner held in jail is China's shame" and "Release Liu Xiaobo and all dissidents," during a demonstration Friday in Hong Kong.

AP

China's official reaction has been to condemn the Norwegian Nobel Prize Committee, saying it violated its own principles by awarding the prize to "a criminal" — dissident Liu Xiaobo.  The 54-year-old writer and human-rights activist is currently serving an 11-year prison term for "subversion."

President Obama issued a statement calling on the Chinese government to release Liu, and he compared the cost of Liu's achievement to that of his own Nobel Peace Prize:

"Last year, I noted that so many others who have received the award had sacrificed so much more than I.  That list now includes Mr. Liu, who has sacrificed his freedom for his beliefs."

Sophie Richardson, of the Asia Division at Human Rights Watch, said Liu's Nobel Prize is "a very public challenge" to China's human-rights record, and one that's likely to trigger a debate between government hardliners and those who favor a more moderate approach.

Liu Xiaobo

Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo is a Chinese scholar and human rights advocate who is currently serving an 11-year term in prison for "subversion."  He began his career as an activist during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and has been repeatedly arrested since then for demanding democratic reforms in China.

Before Tiananmen, he traveled outside China as a visiting scholar at Columbia University, the University of Oslo and the University of Hawaii.

This is his fourth prison term on political charges, ranging from "counter-revolutionary propaganda" to "disturbing public order."  The latest sentence is connected with his work in co-writing and promoting "Charter 08," a manifesto calling for protection of human rights, free speech and free elections in China.

In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu has been recognized with the 2004 Fondation de France prize as a defender of press freedom.

Richardson says the most immediate reaction is likely to be a wave of curiosity about Liu, as millions of ordinary Chinese try to find out more about him and why he was sentenced to prison.

She says it's also likely to lead to more publicity for "Charter 08," a document that Liu co-authored, which calls for greater political freedom in China and an end to the dominance of the Communist Party.

Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, says Liu's peace prize could provide a greater opening for Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, who she says has been talking about political reform lately, including the right to monitor and criticize the government.

"Wen Jiabao has been echoing a lot of what Liu Xiaobo was talking about," she says.

Richardson says Liu's case reflects the ongoing debate between hardliners and relative moderates in the Chinese leadership. Liu's dissent had been somewhat tolerated, but his involvement with the "Charter 08" manifesto angered hardliners and led to his trial and imprisonment last year.

This Oct. 28, 2008, file photo shows Liu Xiaobo reading a letter beside the grave of Bao Zunxin, a Chinese historian and political dissident who was arrested and jailed for his role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests in Beijing. Associated Press hide caption

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Associated Press

This Oct. 28, 2008, file photo shows Liu Xiaobo reading a letter beside the grave of Bao Zunxin, a Chinese historian and political dissident who was arrested and jailed for his role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests in Beijing.

Associated Press

Chinese state media blacked out the news of Liu's Nobel Prize, and censors blocked reports about it from the Internet in China.

Chinese officials said the decision would harm its relations with Norway, whose parliament chooses the Nobel Peace Prize committee.

The officials refused to allow access to Liu in prison Friday, and it was not even clear whether he knew of the award.  He may not find out until his wife is able to meet him at the prison, which is about 300 miles from Beijing.

Liu's wife, Liu Xia, issued a statement welcoming the award and the attention it would bring to his case.

"As the [Nobel] Committee recognized, China's new status in the world comes with increased responsibility.  China should embrace this responsibility, have pride in his selection, and release him from prison," the statement said.

Protesters demonstrate in support of freeing Liu Xiaobo, who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, in Hong Kong on Friday. AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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AFP/Getty Images

Protesters demonstrate in support of freeing Liu Xiaobo, who won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, in Hong Kong on Friday.

AFP/Getty Images

Economy says it will likely take some time for the Chinese government to get over "the backlash of embarrassment" created by the award, and that signs of the debate among China's leadership are likely to emerge "not in the next few weeks, but in the next few months."

"You'd have to see the opening coming not just from [Premier] Wen, but from other Chinese leaders in the Politburo," Economy says.

Meanwhile, Richardson says the prize and the attention it has brought to China's human-rights issues will be a concern for the officials, such as Xi Jinping and Li Kejiang, who are expected to take over China's leadership in the next few years.

She says it's likely that they will consider freeing him when they come to power.