BEIJING — During the depths of the Cold War, when Soviet physicist and human rights advocate Andrei D. Sakharov was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Kremlin barred him from leaving the country. But the authorities allowed his wife to collect the award in his stead.
Confronted with a similar challenge in 1983, Polish authorities permitted the wife of trade unionist Lech Walesa to travel to Oslo on his behalf. In 1991, the son of Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi delivered the acceptance speech for his mother, who was being held under house arrest.
But the Chinese government has come up with a less magnanimous approach to the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to give the peace prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo, 54, who is serving an 11-year sentence for subversion. Liu’s wife, Liu Xia, has been held incommunicado since news of the award broke last month, and the government has been waging a muscular offensive to rebrand the prize as a Western ploy to undermine the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on power.
Beijing’s overall response has not been subtle. It has warned foreign governments to stay away from the Dec. 10 ceremony, and it has placed dozens of Chinese dissidents and intellectuals under various forms of detention or surveillance. Last week, two prominent legal scholars were blocked from attending a law conference in London for fear they might later find their way to the awards ceremony to be held at Oslo City Hall.
China’s reaction has been so comprehensively hostile that the Nobel committee, for the first time in the postwar era, said Thursday that the central part of the peace prize ceremony — the bestowing of a medal and $1.5 million in cash — would probably be postponed, given that neither Liu nor any of his family members were likely to attend.
This is not the Cold War, and China is far more international and integrated into the global economy than either the Soviet Union or Communist Poland ever was. But China, emboldened by its rising economic might, appears to be more determined than many other authoritarian countries to confront the West’s notion that Western values are universal and to mobilize China’s citizens against what it views as an assault on its political system.
“Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo once again reflects the strong attempts of Western countries to intervene in the political process in China,” said a commentary that ran this month in the official newspaper People’s Daily.