Washington: President Barack Obama called Friday on China to free his successor as Nobel Peace Prize winner, activist Liu Xiaobo, in a new test over the place of human rights in delicate Sino-US relations.
Obama, who has faced accusations of ignoring human rights concerns in his quest for better ties with China, issued a written statement welcoming the Nobel prize for Liu, a 54-year-old writer and democracy campaigner.
"Last year, I noted that so many others who have received the award had sacrificed so much more than I," Obama said.
"That list now includes Mr Liu, who has sacrificed his freedom for his beliefs."
The Nobel committee's decision put Obama in a difficult political position, balancing the moral duties of a Nobel laureate against the diplomatic realities of managing US relations with the emerging Asian superpower.
Obama praised Liu as "an eloquent and courageous spokesman for the advance of universal values through peaceful and non-violent means, including his support for democracy, human rights and the rule of law."
Obama noted that over the last 30 years, China had made "dramatic progress in economic reform and improving the lives of its people, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty."
"But this award reminds us that political reform has not kept pace, and that the basic human rights of every man, woman and child must be respected.
"We call on the Chinese government to release Mr. Liu as soon as possible."
Representative Christopher Smith, who spearheaded a letter by US lawmakers in February to nominate Liu or another Chinese activist for the Nobel prize, voiced hope that the Obama administration will now become more vocal.
"Without a doubt, they have been at best indifferent and at worst enabling of the abuses in China," Smith told a news agency. "This makes it more difficult for the administration to continue its ways."
Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, said that China's public warnings to Norway not to award the prize to Liu "shows they are so accustomed to getting away with intimidation."
The Nobel prize will "bring a light of scrutiny at long last" to a deteriorating human rights situation in China, Smith said.
Smith and other US lawmakers this week called on Obama to raise the cases of Liu and Gao Zhisheng, a human rights lawyer who has gone missing, when he meets Chinese President Hu Jintao next month in South Korea.
The Obama administration has said it has raised human rights issues with China, but often considered it more appropriate to air concerns privately.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised controversy at the start of her tenure when she said human rights would not "interfere" with US-China cooperation on other issues, including climate change and the global economy.
In a break with precedent, China did not release any dissidents as a goodwill gesture when Obama visited Beijing last year.
Catherine Baber, deputy Asia-Pacific director for Amnesty International, said that the Nobel prize "can only make a real difference if it prompts more international pressure on China to release Liu along with the numerous other prisoners of conscience languishing in Chinese jails for exercising their right to freedom of expression."
Charles Freeman, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, expected that Beijing would eventually look for a quiet way to release Liu.
But he said that the Nobel prize came at a "tough time for China," which is taking heat from Western nations which accuse it of keeping its currency artificially low.
"They're feeling a little bit put upon by the rest of the world right now," Freeman said.
When US leaders raise human rights with China, "they usually get a polite but firm response. The response will be a little less polite and a little more shrill this time," he said.
The Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 led to greater international acceptance of Tibet's exiled spiritual leader the Dalai Lama, who has since met every sitting US president.
First Published: Saturday, October 09, 2010, 10:18