BEIJING, China — The first time her husband went to prison for criticizing the Chinese government, Liu Xia shaved her head. More than 14 years later, her hair is still shorn but her husband, Liu Xiaobo, is no longer just another struggling Chinese dissident.
Liu Xiaobo won the Nobel Peace Prize today, making him the first Chinese winner, and only the second recipient to get the award while in prison. German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky won the prize while in jail in 1935. Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi received the award in 1991 while under house arrest, but not in prison.
Liu, a longtime democracy advocate, was sentenced last year to 11 years in prison for subversion for his role in drafting and distributing online Charter 08, a widely circulated petition calling for human rights and democratic reform in China’s political system.
“I am very thankful to see so many people supporting him,” Liu’s wife said in a telephone interview Friday, as her house became surrounded by supporters and police. “I want to say thanks.”
Liu’s Nobel win is both expected and surprising. He was the odds-on favorite, but prominent Chinese dissidents before him failed to win the Nobel committee’s nod. Liu, 54, was buoyed by a highly publicized nomination from Václav Havel, Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama.
“We ask the Nobel Committee to honor Liu Xiaobo’s more than two decades of unflinching and peaceful advocacy for reform, and to make him the first Chinese recipient of that prestigious award,” Havel wrote in a piece to the International Herald Tribune last month. “In doing so, the Nobel Committee would signal both to Liu and to the Chinese government that many inside China and around the world stand in solidarity with him, and his unwavering vision of freedom and human rights for the 1. 3 billion people of China.”
U.S. President Barack Obama took the lead of the growing international campaign calling for China to release Liu from jail. Obama said Liu "has sacrificed his freedom for his beliefs" and is "an eloquent and courageous spokesman for the advance of universal values through peaceful and nonviolent means," according to AP.
"We call on the Chinese government to release Mr. Liu as soon as possible," said Obama.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel praised the award, calling Liu "a brave man."
Liu did not immediately learn that he had won, Nobel organizers said, and China’s initial reaction was stern. In a terse statement, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the Nobel committee had violated its own principles by giving the award to a criminal.
The committee sees Liu very differently, extolling his advocacy of free speech and human rights, and saying human rights are essential to peaceful societies.
"For over two decades, Liu Xiaobo has been a strong spokesman for the application of fundamental human rights also in China," said the committee. "The campaign to establish universal human rights also in China is being waged by many Chinese, both in China itself and abroad. 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 big question now, of course, is what lies ahead. China watchers and Liu’s allies are bracing to see what happens both to the Nobel Laureate and to others in the Chinese political reform arena — a segment increasingly overshadowed by economic development and trade in China’s relationships with the United States and other countries.
China already threatened that giving Liu the prize would harm its relations with Norway, and it is unclear what its abrasive reaction means on a wider scale. But Liu’s friends and colleagues are thrilled with the news, saying it gives credibility to a movement too often ignored.
“It gives people hope,” said blogger and activist Michael Anti, a friend of Liu’s. “The world is still watching China.”
Mo Shaoping, a signatory to Charter 08, said that first he was proud the Nobel Prize was given to a Chinese person, educated only in China. Moreover, Mo said, the prize recognizes Liu’s long-held belief that political reform in China can be accomplished through peaceful, gradual reforms rather than violence.
“This is an encouragement to people who shared Liu Xiaobo`s point of view,” said Mo.
A translation of Charter 08, available online, has gathered thousands of signatures around the world.
The Dalai Lama welcomed Liu's award as "the international community’s recognition of the increasing voices among the Chinese people in pushing China towards political, legal and constitutional reforms."
The Buddhist leader said: "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 towards responsible governance."
The Dalai Lama said he is encouraged by a recent statement in which Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said that freedom of speech is indispensable for any country and the people’s wish for democracy and freedom is irresistible. The Dalai Lama said reforms "can only lead to a harmonious, stable and prosperous China, which can contribute greatly to a more peaceful world." He called on the Chinese government to release Liu.
The news of the Nobel has sparked renewed interest in Liu's statement issued before his Christmas Day sentencing last year: "I have no enemies, and no hatred. None of the police who monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentence me, are my enemies," stated Liu.
"For hatred is corrosive of a person’s wisdom and conscience; the mentality of enmity can poison a nation's spirit, instigate brutal life and death struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and block a nation’s progress to freedom and democracy." Liu said he hoped to "defuse hate with love."