BEIJING China has long coveted a Nobel Prize for one of its citizens, but the peace prize awarded last week to Liu Xiaobo, who is serving 11 years in prison for helping write a manifesto for democratic change, was the last one the government wanted to win.
[FT Comment--be careful what you wish for.
]In private conversations, people here are speculating about the governments options. Keeping Mr. Liu, now arguably the worlds most famous political prisoner, in jail would serve as a powerful magnet for criticism of Chinas human rights record. Releasing him would put back in circulation a man whose calls for freedom the government fears so much it has jailed him three times.
News of the award has spread slowly, impeded by Internet and media censorship. Chinas response, delivered by the Foreign Ministry, was to call it an obscenity. Dissemination of this official version of events was not blocked, but independent comment and expressions of congratulation were quickly erased from Web sites.
As the news crept out, Chinese people were deeply divided.
Free speech and civil society advocates rejoiced. Some organized private dinners where they raised glasses to toast Mr. Liu, a key figure in the 1989 democracy movement that was violently suppressed by the military on the night of June 3-4 that year.
Others reacted angrily, conditioned by decades of nationalist discourse that permeates education and society. They saw a plot by the West to humiliate China.
I dont think this prize is appropriate, and I dont agree with it. This is an insult to the Chinese government, a sign of disrespect, contempt, said a 65-year-old university professor, who requested anonymity because the issue is so contentious.
Each country has its own laws, its own rules and its own profit, no matter what, she added. For a person who is a criminal under Chinese law to win the Nobel Peace Prize, well, thats ironic.
Still others, somewhere on the spectrum between the two extremes, were pleased but struggled with conflicting emotions.
Everyone knows there are problems in China related to lack of human rights and democracy, said Ma Juan, 31, a Ph.D. candidate back home on a study break from university in the United States. But even if you know your mother is ugly, youre still unhappy when you hear others saying it. What you want to do is to protect and change her, not listen to others criticize her.
Regardless of where they stand, many people in China are transfixed by what they say is a major quandary facing the government: what to do with Mr. Liu, who still has a decade left in prison?
They cant keep him in jail! Impossible! said a businessman who took part in the 1989 democracy movement as a 20-year-old. He also requested anonymity.
Leaving Mr. Liu in jail would be a public relations disaster dogging China through the next decade of its self-proclaimed peaceful rise, he said.
On the other hand, he continued, They cant set him free!
The Chinese government has often released high-profile dissidents when their presence proved too , on condition that they leave the country. It may hope to do that again.
But it is widely believed that Mr. Liu would refuse to leave if he were freed. Offered the chance immediately after the 1989 crackdown, he refused, cycling home after two days in hiding, only to be knocked off his bicycle and arrested by security officials tailing him in a van. A year and a half in jail followed.
So what are they going to do? the businessman asked, predicting that it could take the leadership months to come up with a solution.
They cant kill him. They cant let him live. They cant jail him, hes already in jail. They cant shut him up. Theyll have to force him out.
Speculation is growing that the government might try to exert pressure on Mr. Lius wife, Liu Xia, and her family, in order to get Mr. Liu to agree to leave. Ms. Liu, a poet and photographer, is already under de facto house arrest, her telephone out of order, though she can e-mail at least sporadically and has used Twitter to communicate with the outside world.
Another businessman joked that China might consider disposing of Mr. Liu by sending him to North Korea, its stout ally.
What did he think the prize meant for China?
His response reflected a cynicism not uncommon here.
Ultimately, it may not mean anything, he said, because there are so many other things that dont mean anything today either, things that arent even in history books, like 6/4 itself, using the shorthand for the massacre of June 4, 1989.
The growing rumble of opinions will have reached the ears of the countrys Communist leaders, gathering Friday for the annual Central Committee plenum, heightening an already sensitive debate over political reform many believe is on the agenda.
They will undoubtedly know of another development this week, upping the pressure a highly critical letter published Monday calling for China to implement freedom of speech and the press. It was written before the announcement of the Nobel Prize by 23 party elders and mostly retired government and media officials, including Li Rui, 93, once secretary to Mao Zedong, and Hu Jiwei, 94, a former editor of Peoples Daily, the party newspaper.
Meanwhile, in China, the news of Mr. Lius award continues to spread.
Congratulatory messages identified as being from China poured in to Nobelprize.org, the official Web site of the Nobel Prize.
Congratulations from Shanghai Jiaotong University! read a typical one. People in Guangzhou send congratulations! read another.
As to the governments dilemma, one anonymous well-wisher on the site had the following advice: The Nobel is a heavy prize, and should be shrugged off by releasing Mr. Liu.