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Julia Lovell: Beijing values the Nobels. That's why this hurts


China has an unhappy relationship with Nobel Prizes.

After it re-entered the international community in the 1980s, the country developed a publicly acknowledged "Nobel Complex". The Beijing government has seen the prize – like Olympic medals and entry to the World Trade Organisation – as an important source of international "face", as the chance to win global recognition as a modern world power. Since it first emerged, however, China's Nobel Complex has been mired in controversy.

Most years, Chinese scholars, politicians and journalists worry that a Nobel Prize has never been awarded to a Chinese person while resident in China. Ethnically Chinese scientists have won only for breakthroughs made outside their country of birth. The only literature prize given to a Chinese writer was given in 2000 to Gao Xingjian, who now lives in Paris, and whose novels openly denounce Communist policies.

The Chinese government's stony response to yesterday's award to the veteran dissident Liu Xiaobo is partly soured by recollections of previously thwarted Nobel ambitions. But its main concern is not external, but internal, as many Chinese people who would not otherwise necessarily have heard of Liu and his pro-democracy Charter 08 will probably now do so.

Responses to Liu (and his prize) have been vigorously censored in China. But the renowned "Great Firewall" of internet control is porous. Minutes after the announcement of Liu's prize, well-informed Chinese microbloggers were buzzing with jubilation. The Nobel Prize is an award that enjoys unique global prestige: within China, it is often seen as an impartial, international source of recognition. That a dissident of Liu Xiaobo's stature has been honoured is bound to alarm the Beijing government.

Whether the government, more rhetorically uncompromising of late, will follow through on its threat of diplomatic consequences for Norway is not clear. And Liu's own future is just as hazy. Since he was jailed in December last year, his sentencing has mobilised a major international response, but it is hard to predict whether this will have an impact on a Chinese government review of his case. What seems more certain is that the publicity attached to the Nobel will prompt many in China to ask who he is, what he has written, and why he is in prison.

Julia Lovell is the author of 'The Politics of Cultural Capital: China's Quest for a Nobel Prize in Literature'