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BEIJING (AP) — Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to an imprisoned Chinese dissident sparked praise from Western governments, brought condemnation from Beijing and is exposing the difficulties fitting a powerful, authoritarian China into the international order.
A day after Liu Xiaobo was named the winner, a touchy Chinese government built upon its initially angry response Saturday.
Authorities escorted Liu's wife from Beijing to the northeastern city where he is imprisoned but did not let her see him to deliver news of the honor. That will have to wait until Sunday, a family member said.
Activist lawyers in Beijing inspired by the award to hold a get-together said police followed them and told them to stay home, preventing them from meeting.
While the government sank into official silence as did much of the state media, a tabloid newspaper affiliated with the ruling Communist Party's flagship People's Daily caustically criticized the prize as part of a Western plot to sow divisiveness in a rising China.
"Good Chinese have reason to suspect that the Nobel Peace Prize has been reduced to a political tool of Western interests," said the popular Global Times. "What they're doing now is using the Peace Prize to tear a hole in Chinese society."
The message that Westerners are out to get China has frequently been used by the leadership to inspire nationalism, and is likely to be promoted anew in coming days to prevent ordinary Chinese from granting Liu and the dissident community any prestige the award might confer.
But the government's uncompromising line seems far from what the Nobel committee honored the 54-year-old Liu for — more than two decades of advocacy of human rights and peaceful democratic change — and from how it hoped Beijing would respond. Members of the Norway-based committee said the award should encourage China to become a more responsible global force and avoid the arrogance of power. President Barack Obama and other world leaders echoed the theme, calling for greater respect for human rights.
That gap between Beijing's authoritarian ways and the way some in the West hope it will behave yawns uncomfortably as the world tries to make room for a China with a rapidly growing resource-hungry economy, a large military and hundreds of millions of citizens joining the consumer classes.
Getting China wrong could prove troublesome as the U.S. and other powers try to quell terrorism, halt nuclear proliferation, revive growth that is flagging in much of the West and deal with other global troubles.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested that China's anger at the Nobel might impede rights work elsewhere. In a statement released by his spokesman, Ban said it was "his sincere hope that any differences on this decision will not detract from advancement of the human rights agenda globally."
Over the past week, Chinese negotiators rallied developing nations and scolded the U.S. on another big global issue — climate change; partly as a result, negotiations for a new agreement to stem global warming made little progress.
The Chinese leadership is feeling embattled. Its currency policies are under fire from Europe and the U.S., where Congress is threatening punitive legislation that some worry could set off a trade war. Territorial disputes recently flared anew with Japan and Southeast Asian neighbors. Meanwhile at home, the government is trying to keep rising property and living costs, wide income disparities and a debate among the elite over political reform from upending a transition to younger leaders two years from now.
Liu's Nobel adds to the sense of pressure, feeding worries that it may carry his previously little-heard message of gradual peaceful change to Chinese wired to the Internet and mobile phones. It also aggravates the government's view that China is misunderstood in the world and under-appreciated for all the progress it has made in raising living standards — a sentiment shared by many Chinese.
The government's recent high-profile forays to change international perceptions have largely fizzled, reinforcing Chinese feelings of being misperceived. The grandiose and nearly flawless Beijing Olympics in 2008 left many foreigners feeling overawed at state control. At last year's Frankfurt Book Fair when China was the guest of honor, Chinese cultural officials and diplomats tried to pressure organizers not to invite dissident authors, sometimes succeeding and sometimes not, but stoking a debate about Chinese censorship.
Ever since party leaders sent the military to crush the Tiananmen Square democracy movement and set back relations with the people, the government has tried to promote nationalism as a unifier. It is likely to turn up the volume in coming days, banking that the Nobel will backfire.
"The symbolism of awarding Liu Xiaobo the award will be lost on many people. They will see it as having a go at China," said Anne-Marie Brady, a Chinese politics expert at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. "The average person has so much more freedom than they ever had in the post-'49 period. There's a strong feeling of 'don't rock the boat too far, don't prod into sensitive areas.'"