Clifford Coonan: People here don't thank outsiders for criticising their country

It was entirely predictable that the award of this year's Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo was both widely applauded in the West and was the source of great anger for the Chinese government. The reaction among ordinary Chinese has been more complex.

Many Chinese see it as yet another attack on China, embodying what they see as sour grapes in the West about China's startling economic rise and a lack of understanding of how the country works. Few ordinary Chinese people had even heard of the 54-year-old literary critic.

For many trying to make China more democratic, the award is being interpreted as a strong message of support, especially as many activists will have been disheartened by the way that business interests have dominated the discourse with China in recent years. There has been little mention of human rights, free speech and democracy.

The award has also highlighted how Chinese dissidents are not unified, and there are differing views of how democratic change should come about. For instance, Wang Dan, one of the leaders of the student democracy movement that was crushed on 4 June 1989, warmly welcomed the award while Wei Jingsheng, who spent nearly two decades in prison for his calls for democracy in China, said others deserved the Nobel Peace Prize more. Mr Wei, who lives in exile in Washington, described Mr Liu as a moderate who was too willing to work with Beijing.

One former pro-democracy protester said that the decision to give Mr Liu the award was entirely political. The protester said it was like when the Nobel went to the Dalai Lama – it was an award that showed what Westerners thought about China and the message they wanted to send about the country.

On the streets of Beijing, many attacked this year's Nobel Peace Prize decision. A university professor, who did not want to be named, said that it was recognised that China had problems with democracy and human rights, but people could see the efforts that the government was making to improve the situation.

One 31-year-old woman highlighted the complexity of the arguments. "I can criticise from inside, but I still want to protect China from the outside, like a son wants to protect his mother. Even if you know your mom is ugly, you are still unhappy when you hear others say it to you, and what you want to do is to protect her and change her."

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