Honoring a Chinese Nobel

I still remember a question on one of the numerous physics tests I took in a middle school in China. “How many people of Chinese descent have been awarded a Nobel Prize?”

I guessed four. The correct answer was six, all science prizes. Not one was still a Chinese citizen when the prize was awarded.

“Our nation’s future depends on you,” the teacher said. “No Chinese person has received the Nobel Prize while they were still Chinese.”

Like most Chinese, I think of the Nobel Prize as very different from other human rights awards, including the Congressional Gold Medal given to the 14th Dalai Lama in 2006. After years of hearing their government demonize the West and human rights, the vast majority of Chinese see these awards as the hostile gestures of foreign forces aimed at interfering in China’s internal affairs. Yet, like me, many Chinese regard the Nobel as the highest honor presented to an individual.

That is why the Chinese authorities have made such astounding efforts to conceal from the public news of the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Liu Xiaobo, the first “Chinese” Chinese to receive a Nobel. Mr. Liu is currently serving an 11-year sentence on trumped-up subversion charges.

Since the award, waves of pseudonymous commentaries have appeared in state-controlled newspapers and on popular Chinese Web sites condemning the Norwegian Nobel Committee for desecrating the prestigious prize by honoring a “criminal” and “traitor.” “The Nobel Prize is remuneration to criminal Liu Xiaobo for his anti-Chinese articles attacking our government,” said a commentary on state-run Web site people.com.cn. “We can all sniff out the malicious incentives and conspiracy behind it.”

Yet I have seen a different reaction on many popular Chinese Internet forums and from the exchange of opinions with my compatriots. For many Chinese, the news of the release of another imprisoned democracy advocate and Nobel Prize recipient, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, came as a sign of hope.

There are fundamental differences between the two. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 59 percent of the vote in the 1990 general election, but the military nullified the result and placed her under house arrest. Over the past 21 years, 15 of which she has spent under house arrest, her popularity and moral authority has increased.

Because of China’s ruthless attack on any challenge to the Communist Party’s power, Mr. Liu has faded from the spotlight since the Tiananmen Square protest ended in bloodshed 21 years ago. Like most Chinese dissidents, Mr. Liu is an intellectual, not a politician, and lacks the political charisma of his Burmese counterpart.

However, the Nobel Committee’s decision is changing everything, in a good way. It made us proud.

Moments after the decision to award him the Peace Prize was announced, countless Chinese Internet users and newspaper subscribers, ignorant of the pro-democracy movement, were asking, “Who is Liu Xiaobo?” Charter 08, Mr. Liu’s pro-democracy manifesto calling for peaceful, comprehensive political reform reached a much wider audience. In some major cities, Chinese people gathered to celebrate the news before the police detained them.

The crackdown continues. Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, is under house arrest. She has issued an online invitation to the awards ceremony in Oslo to 143 Chinese activists, academics and celebrities, but they have been denied permission to travel. The year 2010 may mark the second time in the prize’s history that neither the recipient nor any of his representatives are present; the last time was in 1936, when Nazi Germany barred the imprisoned pacifist Carl von Ossietzky from collecting the prize.

China’s booming economy benefited from the West’s decision not to impose sanctions after the Tiananmen crackdown. The result was the rise of an increasingly assertive China, belligerent internationally and oppressive domestically. Yet liberalizing influences have already been planted in people’s minds. We would love to see the highest honor bestowed on our countryman. The prospect that the ceremony might be postponed upsets us.

The release of Aung San Suu Kyi proves that even a repressive and isolated regime like Burma cares about its international image. So does the Chinese government.

If Mr. Liu, his family and Chinese colleagues cannot make it to Oslo, countries that enjoy human rights should represent them at the ceremony. Every time foreign leaders meet with the Chinese, they should raise the issue of Mr. Liu’s imprisonment. Tiptoeing around it — like the United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, did recently at a meeting with President Hu Jintao — will only make things worse. More countries should join the 36 nations that are sending ambassadors to the prize ceremony.

Go to Oslo! Make us prouder.

Archer Wang, a student at Duke University from China, majoring in political science and English.