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Chinese have a free lunch

Hours after jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo won China’s first Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, a group of 15 Chinese friends decided to celebrate at a Beijing restaurant while the government was denouncing the prize as a ‘desecration’.

india Updated: Oct 10, 2010 01:12 IST
Reshma Patil

Hours after jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo won China’s first Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, a group of 15 Chinese friends decided to celebrate at a Beijing restaurant while the government was denouncing the prize as a ‘desecration’.

Half the group spent the night in jail. A police officer reportedly asked what was on the menu before he detained them.

By Saturday morning, professor Cui Weiping had started a petition on Twitter — the site banned in China teems with bold professors, artists, lawyers and students tweeting and dissenting through proxy servers — to demand the release of her colleagues including four women. She had 80 Chinese responses to the tweet when HT rang.

“Liu’s Nobel is really really great,’’ Cui, a professor at the Beijing Film Academy, joyfully told HT.

The Nobel Prize committee, in a written reproach that ‘China’s new status must entail increased responsibility,’ unleashed the rights debate that the Communist Party is reluctant to argue outside the establishment. The Party that now rules over the second-largest economy has shown little change in its lack of tolerance for a difference of opinion on the extent of rights and freedom its citizens can enjoy. The Nobel news blackout on television suppressed the debate to a large extent. But the 54-year-old peace laureate erased from the Chinese Internet and CNN broadcasts was slowly turning into a hero over neighbourhood noodle gatherings of minority dissidents.

“The message of the Prize will penetrate into the regime and they will somehow have to respond,’’ writer Wen Keqian told HT from eastern Hangzhou. “We hope they will respond smartly by giving more freedom to an increasingly demanding society.’’

In boomtown Hangzhou, Wen had faced police questioning after signing a democracy manifesto Liu co-authored and planned, partly through Skype meetings, in 2008. “Fear is becoming less,’’ Wen said. “The Chinese have enjoyed relatively good economic progress. Now they want more political freedom and basic human rights.”

With professors, businessmen, social workers and activists, he celebrated Liu’s Nobel over a restaurant dinner supervised by a police car nearby. “I was overjoyed when I heard the news,’’ he said. “I couldn’t hold back my tears. Several generations of dissidents have been struggling for a free and democratic China. The Prize is a milestone.”

Authorities seem more lenient toward celebrations farther from Beijing. In a town in east China’s wealthiest province Jiangsu, writer Jiang Qisheng, 62, spoke to HT from a raucous lunch organised to honour the man China’s foreign ministry and courts label a criminal.

“Tonight, we will hold a much bigger banquet,’’ Jiang said. “I am proud of Liu.”

Jiang signed Charter 08, the manifesto for democratic rights that literature professor Liu co-authored with 303 Chinese scholars. Last December, a year after his arrest, Liu was sentenced after a two-hour trial to 11 years in jail for ‘inciting subversion to state power.’ The banned charter moved surreptitiously through Chinese cyberspace gathering 10,000-12,000 signatures.

“After I signed the charter, the police came to my house and took away my computer, some books and magazines,’’ said Jiang. “They warned that if I continued to struggle for this charter, then I maybe caught, by the gun. I am not afraid. I hope for change in China.’’

Dissidents who petitioned the Nobel committee to select Liu were scattered across China: authors, poets, lawyers, teachers, clerks, PhD professors in the US, artists, democracy activists, a bridge engineer and a doctor.

On Friday night, the Mandarin Twitterati reported fireworks from Beijing University and People’s University. The next morning, the state-run Global Times editorial called the Prize a ‘disgrace’ decided by an ‘arrogant, prejudiced’ committee. “I will ask my students how many know about Liu or what he has written. These foreign panels are too opinionated,” He Xing, a lecturer at the University of Shanghai told the paper.

Signs from the Party two years before its leadership transition show a split personality grappling with stirring for greater political freedom as citizens become richer, educated, travel the world and encounter information suppressed back home.

In March, during the annual session of the National People’s Congress or the Chinese parliament, Premier Wen Jiabao, the Party’s pro-reform face, spoke of ‘political restructuring’. But China’s top legislator Wu Bangguo toned down any expectations.

The Premier repeated his reforms call in Shenzhen in August. Last week, Wen told CNN that the ‘Chinese people’s wish and need for democracy is irresistible’ and that he faced ‘some resistance’ putting his speeches in action. The interview was largely unreported in the Chinese media, exposing the grip of a Party prepared to censor its own Premier.

“If Wen is clever, he should use Liu’s win to exert pressure on the Party’s conservative faction,” rights lawyer Mo Shaoping told Reuters. “There are those who think the leadership does not speak with one voice on this issue. Liu's prize could act as a starting point for reform.”