Kerry Brown: Liu is a major thorn in the side of a leadership in flux transition

In the 1980s and 1990s the Chinese government put its full weight behind acquiring a Nobel prize for China. But the two instances of Chinese citizens gaining one since then have not been happy. The Literature prize to émigré author Gao Xinjian in 2001, and the Peace prize this year to Liu Xiaobo, were both awards to people the authorities in Beijing regarded with deep mistrust.

It is not surprising that the Chinese government has all but lost faith in the Nobel prize system. What is perhaps more surprising is the huge efforts it has put into discrediting the award to Liu, even at the risk of making his name more widely known. When the prize was announced, most TV stations were blocked out. But the state media has subsequently mounted an internal campaign to discredit a man regarded as a criminal for his work asking for more political rights.

This has now developed into energetic attempts to prevent representatives of foreign governments going to the ceremony in Oslo. Nudges, demands and downright threats have been issued. What this might indicate, however, is that at the heart of government in Beijing, only two years before a major leadership transition, there is increasing disagreement and nervousness. Aggressive actions like those we have seen in the past month about this, and also regarding Japan, only show that key areas of policy are being driven by that lowest common denominator principle: attack is the best form of defence.

As for the elites, who have become even more opaque and secretive, the only conclusion one can draw is that groups within the Communist Party are trying hard to prove that they are not vulnerable to accusations of being soft on defending China's national interest.

That is a pity, because China has been patient in the last few years, and slowly tried to build up a more positive international image. But in the last few weeks, its critics have had a field day. When the Politburo signed off Liu's sentence late last year, as they would almost certainly have done for a case as sensitive as this, they evidently didn't worry much about the potential consequences. From his jail in China, Liu Xiaobo is proving himself to be a major thorn in their side – and at the moment, to the amazement of many onlookers, things are going his way.

Kerry Brown is a Senior Fellow at Chatham House's Asia programme