The Nobel Peace Prize for Liu Xiaobo marks the first time this award has been bestowed on a serving prison inmate since the Nobel committee granted the 1935 prize to Carl von Ossietzky, a German journalist and pacifist. While Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest when she received the award in 1991 and the Dalai Lama was in exile when he was honoured, in 1989, neither was in prison.
China strongly opposes the award for Liu and points to Alfred Nobel's will, which said the prize should be given to someone who 'shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses'.
If those words were taken literally, the majority of recipients would not have been eligible. Men such as Nelson Mandela, Kim Dae-jung and Martin Luther King Jnr were honoured for what they had done - or were attempting to do - to bring about change in their own countries.
The Nobel committee interprets its mandate widely and often uses the prize to promote democracy and human rights. Moreover, the individual recipient who is deemed worthy may also be a symbol of a cause. As the current committee chairman, Thorbjorn Jagland, said of Liu, he is 'the foremost symbol of the wide-ranging struggle for human rights in China'.
Parallels between von Ossietzky and Liu are manifest. In 1935, Adolf Hitler issued an appeal against giving the award to von Ossietzky, who was then in a Nazi concentration camp. In 2010, Beijing warned the Nobel committee not to give the prize to Liu.
Ossietzky's main crime was the publication of an article in which he underlined Germany's rearmament after the first world war, in contravention of the Treaty of Versailles. Liu's main crime, for which he is serving an 11-year sentence, was the drafting and publication of Charter 08, which calls for political reform and democratisation in China.
In the 1930s, the German press was forbidden to comment on the granting of the Nobel prize to von Ossietzky. Today, the Chinese press is not allowed to report on the Nobel prize for Liu - except articles that denounce the Nobel committee. One sample is a Global Times editorial, '2010 Nobel Peace Prize a disgrace', which called the award an attempt to 'impose Western values on China'.
After China protested vociferously against the 1989 award for the Dalai Lama, Egil Aarvik, then chairman of the Nobel committee, likened the Chinese protest to Hitler's reaction to the awarding of the prize to von Ossietzky. Of course, China today is vastly different from Nazi Germany. But it would be wise for China not to invite comparisons through its actions.
At a press conference, Jagland asserted that outsiders have a right to criticise China - just as the United States is criticised - especially as it was being transformed into a major power. 'We have to speak when others cannot speak,' he said. 'We want to advance those forces that want China to become more democratic.'
One who can speak is Premier Wen Jiabao , who said in a recent interview with CNN: 'The people's wishes for and need for democracy and freedom are irresistible.' But his comments, too, have been censored in China.
Liu is no longer allowed to speak publicly. On December 23 last year, two days before his sentencing, he prepared a statement in which he said that he had 'no enemies and no hatred', specifically including the 'police who have monitored, arrested and interrogated me, the prosecutors who prosecuted me, or the judges who sentenced me'. 'For hatred,' he explained, '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.'
Such are the sentiments of the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize of 2010.
Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator