BEIJING (Reuters) - Beijing on Monday cancelled a meeting with a Norwegian minister as Chinese officials bristled over the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo.
Responses to the prize have laid bare tensions between Bejing and its critics at a time of greater Chinese assertiveness over its currency, international trade and even geographical ambitions for territory in dispute with its neighbours.
State-controlled Chinese newspapers said the prize to Liu, once reviled by Beijing as a traitorous “black hand” behind the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democracy protests, showed a prejudiced West afraid of China’s rising wealth and standing.
China’s Foreign Ministry had already called the prize an “obscenity” and blamed the Norwegian government, although Oslo has no say in who the Oslo-based Nobel committee awards it to.
Liu, serving 11 years in jail for campaigning for the democratic transformation of China’s one-party state, told his wife, Liu Xia, that the award was a tribute to citizens killed when troops moved in to crush the protests, reports said on Monday.
Although a final toll may never be known, estimates of those killed range from several hundred to several thousand. China insists the reports are exaggerated.
“This prize goes to all of those who died on June 4, 1989,” he told her, according to Norway’s Dagbladet newspaper, citing a message from Liu Xia after she visited him in prison.
Liu Xia also said she had been “put under house arrest,” the Dagbladet reported, and Liu’s lawyer, Shang Baojun, told Reuters that he had been unable to contact her.
Diplomats from the European Union as well as Australia and Switzerland unsuccessfully tried to visit Liu Xia in her apartment on Monday but were stopped by a plain clothes official who said he worked for the apartment compound.
Chinese media reacted furiously on Monday to the Nobel Prize decision.
If Liu’s calls for a multi-party democracy in China were followed, said the Global Times, a popular Chinese-language tabloid: “China’s fate would perhaps be no better than the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, and the country probably would have quickly collapsed.”
The China Daily, one of the government’s main English-language mouthpieces, said the award was “part of the plot to contain China” and the Nobel exposed “the deep and wide ideological rift between this country and the West.”
Liu, 54, has been a thorn in the government’s side since 1989. He has been in and out of jail ever since for his campaigning for freedom of speech and political liberalisation.
Norwegian government officials said Fisheries Minister Lisbeth Berg-Hansen had been told in Shanghai that she would no longer be meeting Chinese counterparts for trade talks and an analyst said more rebukes would likely follow.
“For an indefinite period, China will freeze political missions and visits and possibly trade delegations. It may go on for a few months or a year or so, but I don’t think it will be longer,” said Jan Egeland, executive director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs think tank.
Rights groups have also reported that other activists and dissidents have been detained since the prize was announced.
Popular online Chinese portals such as search engine Baidu have disabled searches for Liu’s name.
In Hong Kong, which enjoys considerable freedoms as a “special administrative region” of China, a small group of protesters demanding Liu’s release gathered outside the liaison office that represents Beijing.
“The authoritarian regime can either go down in history or they have to transform themselves in a peaceful and orderly manner,” said pro-democracy lawmaker Albert Ho.
Ordinary Chinese seemed unfazed by the fuss.
At Expo 2010 in Shanghai, a world fair showcasing China to the world and the world to China, there were long queues at the Norwegian pavilion but few seemed to know who Liu was.
“It’s all over the internet but the Chinese people who come here don’t really care,” said Xiao Ting, 20, stamping visitor passports.
“They just want to come in quickly, get their expo passport stamped and then leave as fast as possible.”
Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard, James Pomfret in Hong Kong, Ralph Jennings in Taipei, and Walter Gibbs and Joachim Dagenborg in Oslo; Writing by David Fox; Editing by Nick Macfie