BEIJING — Liu Xiaobo, an impassioned literary critic, political essayist and democracy advocate repeatedly jailed by the Chinese government for his writings, won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday in recognition of "his long and nonviolent struggle for fundamental human rights in China."
Liu, 54, perhaps China's best known dissident, is currently serving an 11-year term on subversion charges.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry reacted angrily to the news, calling it a "blasphemy" to the Peace Prize and saying it would harm Norwegian-Chinese relations. "Liu Xiaobo is a criminal who has been sentenced by Chinese judicial departments for violating Chinese law," it said in a statement.
In awarding the prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee delivered an unmistakable rebuke to Beijing's authoritarian leaders at a time of growing intolerance for domestic dissent and spreading unease internationally over the muscular diplomacy that has accompanied China's economic rise.
But before he was anything else, a hunger striker or inmate; dissident or symbol, Liu Xiaobo (pronounced Liew Show Boh) was a bookish literature professor and an essayist desperate to be able to write about politics, art and life without restraint.
"Simply for expressing divergent political views and taking part in a peaceful and democratic movement, a teacher lost his podium, a writer lost the right to publish, and a public intellectual lost the chance to speak publicly," he wrote shortly before going to prison last year. "This was a sad thing, both for myself as an individual and, after three decades of reform and opening, for China."
In a move that in retrospect may have been counterproductive, a senior Chinese official recently warned the Norwegian committee's chairman that giving the prize to Liu would adversely affect relations between the two countries.
In their statement in Olso announcing the prize, the committee noted that China, now the world's second-biggest economy, should be commended for lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and for broadening the scope of political participation. But they chastised the government for ignoring freedoms guaranteed in the Chinese constitution.
"In practice, these freedoms have proved to be distinctly curtailed for China's citizens," the statement said, adding, "China's new status must entail increased responsibility."
News of the award was nowhere to be found on the country's Internet portals and a CNN broadcast was blacked out throughout the evening.
Liu is the first Chinese citizen to win the $1.4 million prize and one of three laureates to have received it while in prison.
President Barack Obama, last year's Nobel peace laureate, called on China to release Liu and said the award reminded the world that while "China has made dramatic progress in economic reform and improving the lives of its people . . . political reform has not kept pace."
Given that he has no access to a telephone, it was unlikely that Liu would immediately learn of the news, his wife, Liu Xia, said. The pair met in college in the 1980s, drawn together by a shared love of poetry.
Blacklisted from academia and barred from publishing in China, Liu has been harassed and detained repeatedly since 1989, when he stepped into the drama playing out on Tiananmen Square by staging a hunger strike and then negotiating the peaceful retreat of student demonstrators as thousands of soldiers stood by, rifles at the ready.
"If not for the work of Liu and the others to broker a peaceful withdrawal from the square, Tiananmen Square would have been a field of blood on June 4," said Gao Yu, a veteran journalist who was arrested in the hours before the tanks began moving through the city.
The crushed demonstrations, Liu later said, marked the "major turning point in my 50 years on life's road."
Even as his freedoms dwindled, Liu remained quietly, astoundingly upbeat. He has stressed a belief that the world is moving inexorably toward more freedom and greater democracy.
This is what he told his friends, and what he told himself: "One letter is enough/For me to transcend/And face you to speak," he wrote in a poem from prison.
His most recent arrest in December 2008 came after he helped to pen Charter 08, a call for multiparty elections and democratic reform.
After he was sentenced, Liu's lawyer released a simple statement from his client: "I have long been aware that when an independent intellectual stands up to an autocratic state, step one toward freedom is often a step into prison," it said. "Now I am taking that step; and true freedom is that much nearer."
In prison, Liu shares his small cell with five other inmates. He sees his wife once a month.
Before he was sentenced, he said that he knew their relationship would endure.
"Your love is sunlight that transcends prison walls and bars, stroking every inch of my skin, warming my every cell, letting me maintain my inner calm," he said. "My love is hard, sharp and can penetrate any obstacles. Even if I am crushed into powder, I will embrace you with the ashes."
As time for the Nobel announcement drew closer, Liu Xia, stayed out of sight. Her phone was turned off Friday night, after she told reporters that police were taking her away from her house in order to keep her away from them.
But on the Internet, people were sending around her husband's poems, some of which were written for her.
"You in a far place/with nights of love stored away."
And: "Abandon the imagined martyrs/I long to lie at your feet."
The New York Times and Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.