OSLO, Norway - China is not the first nation to be rankled by a Nobel Peace Prize. But its furious assault on the 2010 award to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo has reached proportions last seen during the Soviet and Nazi regimes.
Even Cold War dissidents Andrei Sakharov and Lech Walesa were able to have their wives collect the prizes for them. Myanmar democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi’s award was accepted by her 18-year-old son in 1991.
But China’s clampdown on Liu’s relatives means the Nobel medal and diploma likely won’t be handed out for the first time since 1936, when Adolf Hitler prevented German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky from accepting the prize.
China's heavy-handedness risks a backlash, particularly as Chinese President Hu Jintao prepares to visit Washington in January for a pomp-filled state visit.
“The Nobel Prize fiasco merely strengthens a growing suspicion of China - but also indicates that China feels it has enough power now not to really care about international opinion. Probably a serious miscalculation for China,” said Christopher Hughes, a professor of China’s international affairs at the London School of Economics.
With Liu serving an 11-year prison sentence for subversion, his wife in house arrest and their families refusing interviews out of pressure, it isn’t clear whether Liu himself is being pressured to renounce the prize.
Prisoners are allowed one monthly meeting with family. At the last known meeting, with his wife just after he won the prize, Liu said he wants to dedicate the award to the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown.
The criticism implicit in the Nobel is all the more stinging to Chinese leaders because of the country’s advances. The Chinese leadership has in the past 30 years lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and built China from a backwater into an economic power while the government has become less intrusive in people’s private lives.
Beijing sees the prize as a rebuke to Chinese efforts to integrate peacefully with a world order still dominated by the West. Worse, the Nobel announcement came as the leadership was feeling besieged by rising calls in a fast-changing Chinese society for greater respect for civil liberties and respect for the law - causes Liu championed.
A result has been a display of government nastiness unparalleled in recent years. It has tried to persuade or warn foreign governments to boycott the Dec. 10 award ceremony in Oslo. A handful of nations have declined invitations, including Russia.
Moscow says its ambassador will not be in Norway at the time, and denied it had anything to do with Chinese pressure. Still, the alignment of the two emerging powers may offer a glimpse of future clashes over human rights between the world’s traditional economic giants and its awakening ones.
At home, police have detained and threatened scores of democracy campaigners and civil rights lawyers to keep them from feeling emboldened by the Nobel.
The media, all of which is state-controlled, has run a propaganda campaign domestically to demonize Liu as a criminal and the Nobel award as the tool of a West out to contain a newly powerful but peaceful China.
Senior officials have even suggested that the U.S. government was somehow behind the Nobel’s decision - an insinuation Secretary of State Clinton had to rebut in a meeting in China last month.
Nobel historian Asle Sveen said the Chinese reaction compares with Nazi Germany’s response in 1936 and that of the Soviet Union when Russian scientist-turned-dissident Andrei Sakharov was awarded the prize at the height of the Cold War.
Hitler was so enraged by the prize to von Ossietzky, a journalist found guilty of treason for publishing secret information on German rearmament in the interwar period, that he prohibited all Germans from ever receiving Nobel Prizes. That caused three Germans - chemistry winners Richard Kuhn and Adolf Butenandt and medicine winner Gerhard Domagk - to decline their awards.
Likewise, Russian writer Boris Pasternak was forced by Soviet authorities to decline his 1958 Nobel Prize in literature.
Soviet authorities also barred Sakharov from collecting the 1975 peace prize and stripped him of his honorary titles.
But his wife, Jelena Bonner, was able to accept it for him because she had been granted an exit visa to Italy for treatment of an eye disease before the prize announcement, Sveen said.
“We do not know whether the authorities would have allowed her to go if she had been in the Soviet Union at the time,” Sveen said.
The Chinese government’s measures in connection with Liu's award are more vehement than when another nemesis, the Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, was given the peace prize in 1989.
Beijing was isolated internationally at the time, having four months earlier sent the military to crush the Tiananmen Square democracy movement and then seen the communist East Bloc begin to crumble. Tibet was under martial law, dissidents were either in jail, in hiding or fleeing into exile and the economy was listless as Western investors largely shunned China.
Frank Pieke, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, said he was surprised that China didn’t let the issue cool down after its immediate - and expected - criticism following this year’s prize announcement in October.
Instead it upped the ante by trying to persuade other nations to stay away from the ceremony. The last time anything similar occurred was when Warsaw Pact countries snubbed the ceremony for Sakharov’s prize.
So far only four nations besides China and Russia have declined invitations to the ceremony - Cuba, Kazakhstan, Morocco and Iraq - for unspecified reasons.
That’s not a great result if China was hoping to use the opportunity to show its rising international clout.
But Pieke said the Chinese leadership’s tough stance on the Nobel is primarily a message to the Chinese people.
“It’s a way of showing that the communist party is as strong as its ever been,” he said.
Even if no one picks up the award for Liu, other parts of the prize ceremony will go ahead as planned. A children’s choir will perform - as requested by Liu - and Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann will read a text written by him.
Geir Lundestad, the spokesman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said the absence of a prize recipient won’t make the 2010 prize fall into oblivion: “I agree with those who say that the prizes to laureates who could not attend the ceremony have become among the most important.”